New kid on the block

New kid on the block
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First Published: Tue, Sep 04 2007. 11 59 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Sep 04 2007. 11 59 PM IST
Can you use a pen? This new kind of laptop uses a normal-looking pen that writes with real ink on real paper. Yet, as you scrawl on paper, a software “auto-magically” pops up on the screen and digitally recreates whatever you are penning down.
It is perfect for schoolchildren who are comfortable with a pen but who may never have touched a computer, and it is coming as an education project. The other thing most comfortable about the ClassMate PC, (CMPC), is the price tag. The initial launch may start at Rs18,000 as formally announced by HCL. But, with various other players intending to enter the fray, industry estimates put the price tag between $180 and $225 (Rs7,380-Rs9,225).
A 7” colour LCD screen provides high-resolution graphics. The integrated keyboard and “mousetracker” are ergonomically designed for the hands of a child. However, an adult can also tap away on it.
Impressively, high-speed wireless Internet is available on the computer through built-in Wi-Fi. The embedded speakers provide disappointing sound reproduction but, at that price, offering built-in speakers is commendable. The ports for a separate microphone and headphones are more promising. I plugged in my reference headphones and streamed CD-quality Internet radio through the laptop to find the quality quite acceptable.
I could envision children making free phone calls all over the world to friends and family, using a plugged-in microphone and free software such as Skype or Ekiga.
Two USB ports allow children to connect a wide variety of off-the-shelf peripherals such as a webcam for videoconferencing, an external CD/DVD burner, a desktop colour printer, a digital camera, a scanner for digitizing documents, an iPod or MP3 player, and much more. A built-in Ethernet port allows for connection to a wired network, and Microsoft Windows XP or Linux powers this neat gizmo. The battery lasts about four hours. You can discover more about the CMPC on www.classmatepc.com.
Intriguingly, the laptop makes no sound. Even when I pushed it to extreme tasks, I did not hear the mechanical whirring of a spinning hard disk or a cooling fan.
The CMPC is designed to have no moving parts inside. This allows it to withstand the shocks and drops expected from a child. A 1GB or 2GB flash disk does the storage in place of a traditional hard disk.
The CMPC is designed to be a networked, rather than a stand-alone, computer. What this may eventually do is change the way we think about installing our software applications and storing our data.
Digital school bag
This is not a toy but a real laptop, a significant evolution that is hiding itself among children. In fact, though the CMPC platform is slated to be shipped in India from this month by HCL, Wipro, Zenith, and Edge, you cannot go and buy it as an individual user.
“It is an education project, not a laptop project,” declares Nicholas Negroponte, referring to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project that he founded. OLPC was the initial idea and rival laptop that sparked off the CMPC.
Negroponte, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s famous Media Lab in Boston, provoked the new thinking with his OLPC, targeting a so-far elusive price tag of below $100. You can get more details at www.laptop.org.
The site expresses the profound challenge faced by developing worlds for their children: “Most of the nearly two-billion children in the developing world are inadequately educated or receive no education at all. One in three does not complete the fifth grade.”
Realizing this higher goal and its inherent challenges and opportunities, both the OLPC and the CMPC joined hands for a larger cause.
Market boom
The CMPC is thus sold exclusively to schools and, according to John McClure, Intel’s South Asia director of marketing, “as a fully-managed service model with hardware, software, networking, and support”. The business model is also innovative. “We could model the pricing into a nominal incremental increase in the per month fee of the students. We are in dialogue with about 25 schools all over the country and expect to have 3,000-5,000 PCs in nine to 12 months,” says Rajendra Kumar, executive vice-president of HCL Infosystems Ltd.
Education and learning content is provided by all vendors through individual tie-ins with Educomp Solutions Ltd, NIIT, Microsoft, Edurite Technologies and various other education content providers, and conforms to India’s education board standards.
More than 30 pilot projects across schools around the world are being launched, with three in India alone: Delhi Public School, Vasundhara; Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) in Faridabad near New Delhi and Padma Sheshadri Bal Bhavan in Bangalore.
According to H.N.S. Rao, deputy commissioner of NVS, students and teachers can submit and check assignments from anywhere on the campus, thanks to the wireless network.
However, they do not find the courseware entirely sufficient, so teachers are encouraged to develop their own course material. McClure points to the other challenges teachers face, with the blackboard giving way to presentations and chats streaming to laptops, and a classroom with no eye contact as students pore over their screens. However, he sums up the CMPC’s impact in pilot projects worldwide: “Dropout rates in schools have gone down and classroom participation is up.”
But the CMPC will eventually impact mainstream laptop-users as well. McClure says this is inevitable. Asustech has already launched laptops globally, starting at $225 for ordinary end-users. Check out the presentations at www.eeepc.com
Different strokes
McClure also foretells the launch in India of “a wave of products from November to March”. The interesting offshoot of the CMPC is its support not just for Windows XP but Linux as well.
“When ordinary children can use Linux so easily, the myth of Linux not being user-friendly can finally be laid to rest, paving the way for an exponential adoption of this OS,” says Valsa Williams, Asia strategy manager, Linux and OpenSource, at Intel. “Currently, the CMPC has been known to run all the major flavours of Linux, including popular distributions in India such as Debian, Fedora, Ubuntu and Mandriva,” she adds. “Specific flavours of Linux from Brazil and from Argentina are also known to run. Therefore, I look forward to India-specific Linux-distros on the CMPC.”
The adoption of both Windows and Linux also opens up opportunities for individuals, entrepreneurs and organizations to author and contribute education and learning material using OpenSource values.
A nation’s most precious resource is its children. By next Teachers’ Day—5 September 2008—we’ll know how many lives light up to learning on an LCD screen.
CMPC HARDWARE CONFIGURATION
Processor: Intel Mobile Processor ULV 900MHz, Zero L2 cache, 400MHz FSB
Memory: DDR-II 256M SO-DIMM
Storage device: 1GB/2GB NAND Flash
Operating system: Windows XP Pro or Linux
LCD: 7” 800x480, LVDS Interface, LED B/L
Audio: Stereo 2 channel audio, built-in speakers and microphone, jack for external output and microphone input
Power solution: Battery with adapter–SIX cells, approximately four hours
LAN/WLAN: 10/100M Ethernet+WLAN 802.11 b/g w/ antenna
Chipset: Intel 915GMS+ICH6-M
Keyboard: Integrated keyboard with hot keys
Touch pad: Cycle touch pad with left and right buttons
Digital pen (optional): Wireless pen to take digital notes
Weight: Less than 1.3kg
(Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com)
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First Published: Tue, Sep 04 2007. 11 59 PM IST
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