The OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project has whittled down the cost of the green and white computer it hopes to deliver to schoolchildren in developing countries to about $130 (£67) so far, and hopes to reach the target price of $100 (£52) in 2008, according to an OLPC project leader.
The group gave reporters a chance to test-drive the laptops at a meeting in Las Vegas during the International Consumer Electronics Show.
Work on the OLPC project by a host of companies affiliated with the programme, from the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Laboratory that launched the effort to AMD, Google and News Corp, has reduced the cost of a number of key technologies to try to meet the target price.
Using a Linux-based OS (operating system) is one way the group can save on cost, but that was not the main reason the group chose Fedora Core 6.0, a Linux OS, according to Michail Bletsas, chief connectivity officer at OLPC and a research scientist at MIT. The open-source OS allowed the OLPC group to expand the user experience and develop programs aimed at children, such as games and other software.
Bletsas also clarified that Microsoft "generously" offered a version of its Windows OS to the OLPC project, as did Apple. But the OLPC project declined, believing it had a chance to develop a new user interface. Using open-source software also allows children a greater opportunity to explore and create on their own, he said.
Reducing costs on the display screen has been a major part of the effort. The group is using low-power displays made in Chi Mei Optoelectronics factories that look great in the sun. A button on the laptop switches it from colour to black and white, so when kids are sitting outside with their laptops, they'll still be able to read e-books and other text.
OLPC members showed off the capability by holding a standard IBM Thinkpad next to an OLPC laptop, and, true to form, the Thinkpad screen was black in sunlight, while the OLPC device could be clearly viewed.
The ability to turn off the colour filters allows the OLPC display to be viewed in sunlight. The group also put on an LED backlight for bolder images.
The display is mounted on a swivel to allow kids to turn it completely around to share what's on their display, and even to fold it so that the laptop turns into a tablet PC for reading. It also carries a webcam so users can send images of themselves and their surroundings.
That the laptop is made for children becomes obvious when you start typing on the keypad. The keys are so close together it's not easy for an adult to type comfortably.
Libya and Nigeria may be among the first places where the laptops are rolled out. The group wants to gain signed letters of credit from countries that have already committed to the project within the next six months so they can begin distributing laptops later this year. The aim is for the group to have firm orders for five million laptops by mid-year and manufactured by the middle of 2008.