Low cost laptops for education

Ever heard of “One Laptop Per Child”? This is an international initiative to deliver affordable, rugged computers to developing nations for children to use. The XO1 laptop has just got into production. The product will naturally be of interest to schools and other educational institutions due to the reduced cost and the design of the product which makes it better able to stand up to wear and tear.

Not to be outdone, Asus Computer has developed and recently released the Eee, its own ultraportable PC with a stripped down hardware spec. This is of considerable interest to me because, for some time, I have wondered if any of the major home appliance manufacturers would move in a similar direction and engineer a simplified laptop as just another kind of appliance, getting its price down to something more affordable for families. Of course, to achieve this, some compromises have to be made. The ideal “appliance PC” (and the laptop is the only realistic form factor) will use USB to add on all the bits like a DVD drive instead of building them in. OLPC and the Eee go a little further than I expected in replacing the traditional HDD with a much smaller amount (typically 2 – 4 GB) of flash memory. Both of these are developing versions of Linux to keep the cost down.

However, most of us will want to see something that can run a commercial OS (such as Windows or the Mac OS), and for that market, Asus is extending the Eee and has obtained support from MS to offer Windows at a special price. The original Eee with Linux is already retailing in NZ at $599. I would hope with educational pricing to get at least the same price with OEM Windows XP, hopefully less. The concept of both the OLPC and Eee seem similar to the Apple eMate that was dropped from production back in 1998. It will be interesting to see if Apple revives the eMate concept in response to the development of the OLPC and Eee products.

For the school environment the easiest way to drop these things into our existing setup is to load Windows XP. Given the small amount of disk space and perhaps only 256 MB of RAM, I would expect to look at an older version of Office (such as XP). Some schools might wish to look into whether thin client (e.g. Terminal Services) is another way of leveraging the reduced capabilities of the Eee. The Eee is the first production implementation of Intel’s Classmate PC spec. If other manufacturers follow this trend then school computing might never be the same.