September 2008

"This is not just a matter of giving a laptop to each child, as if bestowing on them some magical charm. The magic lies within--within each child, within each scientist, scholar or just-plain-citizen-in-the-making. This initiative is meant to bring it forth into the light of day."

Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General

The One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC), founded by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte and a team of educators, developers and technologists, was launched in 2005 to design, manufacture and distribute laptop computers that are affordable enough to provide every child in the world with access to new channels of learning.

Known as the XO, the little green-and-white US$188 laptop has since gone on to introduce computer literacy and self-empowered learning to children in countries and environments previously considered inaccessible. It's also an example of social innovation, where companies like Nortel are leveraging novel approaches--including open source software development--to drive change that will benefit society.

Company and Open Source Interaction

Nortel, a recognized leader in communications technology and solutions, is a founding sponsor of the OLPC initiative. In addition to helping children in emerging nations gain access to the valuable learning opportunities technology can offer, our contribution to OLPC and the XO laptop is helping Nortel research and development (R&D) teams think differently to address challenges that may have a broader application elsewhere in the industry. While not a Nortel product, XO is being used as a tool to stimulate our R&D teams to consider new communication models. These models support the growing trend of Hyperconnectivity, explore new technologies, and contribute to new programming models, including open source.

XO is the first computer created as an educational aid for children in developing countries, where close to two billion children are inadequately educated or receive no education at all. As such, the XO computer is designed to be simple for children to use, even in harsh environmental conditions and outdoor classrooms. To accommodate areas where the availability of electricity is a challenge, XO can be solar charged. It consumes 80 to 90 percent less power than conventional laptops, is fully water resistant with a rubber-sealed keyboard, and has a high-resolution screen that can be easily read in direct sunlight. Also, the XO is based on a mesh wireless network that turns each laptop into a router that allows for easy Internet access.

One of the most significant attributes of the XO is that it was designed to run on open source software (OSS). Indeed, the open source technologies in the OLPC laptop address many of the challenges faced by those deploying connectivity in the developing world. These include: i) sparse technology infrastructure addressed through the laptop's wireless mesh networking capability; ii) limited available electricity offset by the laptop's ultra low-power usage; and iii) the lack of trained IT personnel, a challenge overcome by the XO's simplified software and automatic configuration capability.

Nortel has recognized the growing importance and impact of open source for many years, embracing OSS in many ways, including using open source in several of its products. Nortel recently acquired PingTel, an open source pioneer in enterprise communicatons. Nortel, PingTel and developers around the world are members in SIPfoundry, a not-for-profit whose mission is to promote and advance Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-related open source projects. Nortel's Software Communications System 500 (SCS500) is based on open source from SIPfoundry, and blends the best of both the open source framework and Nortel's expertise in voice, data, multimedia and unified communications.

Nortel is one of many contributors enhancing the open source capability of the XO laptop. For example:

  1. Nortel is a sponsor of the Open802.11S project, which is producing an open source version of the mesh networking protocol used by the XO laptop. This networking software was not open source, which has been seen as an impediment for the OLPC. By making this software part of the open source Linux kernel, it can be used in off-the-shelf computer hardware to create servers used in OLPC school-based deployments. The availability of a high-quality open source reference implementation will accelerate the creation and adoption of the standard, which will make low-cost mesh networking widely available.
  2. We're helping OLPC analyze and address performance issues experienced with scaling the OLPC wireless mesh networking subsystem. Nortel has created an OLPC networking lab in its Ottawa, Canada facility and has engaged a team of Nortel developers to address these issues. We have developed a large number of test cases and are committed to making this testbed available to other open source developers to use when working on mesh networking-related problems.
  3. Nortel has sponsored an external research project at the University of Sfax in Tunisia to foster the participation of students and professors in the development and testing of the XO software and wireless mesh networking.
  4. We're collaborating with the OLPC core software team to augment their Bitfrost security implementation to include more of the architectural pieces envisioned in the Bitfrost security architecture. This architecture breaks new ground in computer security and addresses some of the key concerns encountered when deploying the laptops in areas without a trusted information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure.
  5. Our LearniT initiative is partnering with Curriki, an online environment created by Sun Microsystems, to support the development and free distribution of world-class educational materials. This alliance provides a free forum for creating and sharing online instructional materials that integrate the latest digital technologies. For example, a teacher can bring to life a traditional lesson plan on the science of weather through digital satellite imaging, showing students how weather systems interact globally. The teacher can then upload the lesson plan, making it available to any teacher anywhere. LearniT also supports the OLPC community by sponsoring and hosting user group meetings. These grassroots events have been organized in cities like Ottawa and Washington, DC by those interested in the open source aspect of the XO laptop.

Open Source and Social Innovation

The XO laptop is just one example of how open source development is being used to address important social needs, such as education. Other examples include:

  1. MIT offers Open Courseware with the motto "Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds". MIT has made the course materials freely available under the terms of a Creative Commons license agreement.
  2. Worldbike is using open source mechanisms to improve the transportation and, by extension, the income-generating capability of families in developing countries.
  3. The open prosthetics project, focused on producing useful innovations in the field of prosthetics, freely shares designs to speed up innovations in this industry.

OSS is an important technological, social, business and economic phenomenon that has been called by industry consulting firm IDC "the most significant all-encompassing and long-term trend that the industry has seen since the early 1980s." As a social phenomenon, open source development is highly distributed, with contributions from developers around the world. Without a binding contract between leaders and developers, large voluntary organizations still emerge to build sophisticated software that meets a shared goal. And even though any developer can take the current code base and create an independent fork or code branch, this rarely happens.

According to a November 2006 EU study on the economic impact of OSS, the OSS-related share of the economy could reach 4 percent of European GDP (gross domestic product) by 2010. Beyond the obvious business benefits, open source development has the potential to trigger important global change.

Consider that OSS can help drive economic and other improvements. There is a well-known correlation between connectivity and economic growth. For example, for each 1% increase in mobile penetration, per-capita GDP grows by US$240, and for each 1% increase in Internet penetration, per-capita GDP grows by US$593. A recent article in Communications of the ACM makes a plausible case for the correlation between connectivity and economic development. Quoting a World Bank official, the article states "(Connectivity) enhances employment, pushes up incomes, increases the employment of women, creates efficiency in government services, and reduces corruption." Widespread connectivity is also associated with:

  1. A reduction in the migration of the poor to congested cities, thus improving the lives of both rural and urban residents.
  2. Improved agricultural economics by communicating market prices and bridging the gap between agricultural experts and local farmers.
  3. Improved rural health care by reducing barriers to the access of health information and overcoming illiteracy barriers.

In addition, open source development can provide more capability to more people at a lower cost.

In its 2003 E-Commerce and Development Report, the UN notes that "there is no Moore's law for software. While computing power falls rapidly in price, software that can make use of that computing power becomes more complicated, sometimes more expensive and less reliable, and almost always more difficult to configure and maintain." The report concludes that open source can help address this problem.

Eric Von Hippel's 2005 book Democratizing Innovation made the case that many commercially significant innovations are created by the end users of products. For example, it is difficult for designers in a lab setting to intimately understand the detailed requirements of an educator in the developing world. By relying on available OSS, these educators can now contribute their own enhancements and innovations, which can be incorporated into new versions of the product.

In a very fundamental way, the availability of OSS empowers learning in a way no book can. Walter Bender, past president of the OLPC initiative, credits the availability of the "view source" button on all browsers--and the free availability of the underlying HTML code--as key to the web's success. In this way, open source demonstrates that one of the most direct ways to learn is to imitate, and leverage, the efforts of others.

OLPC and Positive Social Change

By getting the open source-based XO laptop into the hands of children and teachers in some of the most under-developed parts of the world (including Haiti, Mongolia, Rwanda, Uruguay and Peru), the initiative is helping to drive real and substantive change in the many countries that have signed up to participate in the OLPC project. Uruguay and Rwanda are two examples of countries that were among the first to embrace OLPC and are now seeing the impact.

In August, Uruguay deployed its 100,000th XO computer, almost all of which were Internet enabled. The scene was the Villa García Elementary School near Montevideo, one of the country's largest primary schools. Uruguay's President presented the 100,000th XO to a six-year-old student. Many of the children captured the moment by turning their XOs around to take their own still pictures or video. In addition to being used as an education tool at the school, XO is also being used to support an anti-smoking school initiative.

In September, at the Kagugu Primary School in Kigali, the national government officially launched OLPC in Rwanda. The ceremony included more than 3,000 students who received their XO laptops. The school was fully prepared for the occasion. The electrical infrastructure had been expanded. Wireless connectivity via Vsat was installed. The Education Minister and a senior science and technology official in Rwanda's President's office both spoke to the gathering of their shared vision of how OLPC can improve education in Rwanda, as well as the country's economy. They also announced that the government will create a fund to support a full XO deployment to all of Rwanda's two million primary school students within five years.

The developing world is not the only beneficiary of the OLPC initiative. Some U.S. school districts, such as Birmingham, Alabama, have also embraced the XO. What's more, the impact of the OLPC initiative extends beyond the benefits associated with education and connectivity. XO has also raised the bar on environmental friendliness. It not only consumes significantly less power than other commercial laptops, XO contains no hazardous materials.

Although the XO laptop and the work of the OLPC Foundation continue to make inroads, the initiative has drawn some criticism both from a technology and a deployment perspective. In some cases, the criticism was valid and served as feedback that has led to improvements in the project. In other cases, the criticism was leveled based on a comparison with commercial laptops and therefore considered less valid because the focus of OLPC is educational, primarily targeted at developing countries and not for profit, and therefore some tradeoffs in the laptop needed to be made. Regardless, work continues to bring the learning opportunities and other benefits associated with technology to children around the world. For example, the OLPC initiative is being complemented by efforts at Microsoft, which is working to port its XP operating system onto the XO hardware.

For the companies involved, the significance of their involvement in the OLPC/XO laptop initiative goes far beyond hardware and software development. As OLPC states on its website, "OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a product in any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end--an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community."

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