Notebooks for all:with zero maintenance or moving parts, open source software.
Posted by egovindia on November 2, 2007
Notebooks for all
A Canadian company has yet another solution for bridging the world’s digital divide
Story by DON SAMBANDARAKSA
A Canadian alternative to the much talked about “one hundred dollar laptop”
is making the rounds of the region in the hope of winning support from
governments by offering a different solution to bridge the digital divide.
Rather than one inexpensive laptop per child, the answer being presented is
a somewhat more powerful computer, with zero maintenance or moving parts,
which can be shared by a number of children running free and open source
Gerry Morgan, founder of Ink-Media and the man behind the Ink-Media Mobile
Personal Computer, explained how the original idea came out of his work in
architecting Schoolnet . The key problem there was that a normal PC had
a typical life span of just six months due to power fluctuations, brownouts,
dust and software or operating system corruption. The answer to that
question was a rugged PC with no moving parts, and one which had no
rewritetable storage for the OS, which could be corrupted.
The idea was to cut maintenance costs, typically around 30 percent, down to
zero. Furthermore, by basing the system on free and open source software,
another significant running cost.
[– Image: http://www.bangkokp ost.com/Database /311007_data01. jpg
Caption: Gerry Morgan shows off his Media budget notebook that he hopes
will help bridge the digital divide. Rather than one laptop per child, it is
designed so that one laptop can serve many children. — DON SAMBANDARAKSA –]
Years later, Morgan came up with the idea that became the Ink-Media Personal
Mobile Computer. Perhaps the oddest technical feature of the tablet-style PC
is the fact that it runs an ARM-based RISC CPU, the Freescale i.mx31. The
key reason for choosing this RISC CPU over a conventional x86 Intel or was battery life. Morgan explained that this CPU’s power envelope
of just 3.5 watts made an 8-hour use possible. The other key reason was that
this particular chip had strong video and graphics capabilities, which would
be needed to show videos and animations in a classroom environment.
The downside is that it does not run the vast amount of x86 software out
The operating system is a cut down version of Debian Linux, recompiled for
the ARM architecture, complete with most of the office and communications
software expected in a GNU/Linux system. The OS and applications are locked
away in semi-permanent that under normal circumstances cannot
be written to by the system.
“It can’t get a virus, it can’t slow down. The system has no
fan. Nothing can break and it is completely maintenance free,” he explained.
Morgan said that he does not believe in the one-laptop-per- child (OLPC)
philosophy. Rather, he believes that computing should be as ubiquitous as
pencils and that one laptop could be made to serve many children.
The architecture is different in that rather than storing data in the
machine, all user data, preferences and language settings are stored in the
user’s SD card or USB drive. Plugging in your drive in any of these machines
would then bring up a Thai language desktop with your files the way the user
left it. This separation of machine and data is important to help one
machine serve many people.
Morgan said that the idea of a pencil lab today would be utter absurdity, so
why then do we persist with the concept of a computer lab? In his worldview,
the PC should be a tool that humans use to express our thoughfulness,
resourcefulness and insightfulness rather than an end in itself.
Already, Morgan is talking about extending the concept beyond education and
to healthcare, homes and even small businesses in the developing world that
have yet to use a computer.
“Four fifths of the world’s population has yet to touch a computer. I was
trying to build something to fit their needs,” he said.
The open source movement features a lot in his talks. Morgan said he was
touched by these people who created all this great software and gave it away
for free, offering an alternative economic model to the one that has become
entrenched in our collective psyche.
The PC design has many similarities with the OLPC and many differences. For
instance, the screen is a conventional screen rather than the special OLPC
design that works in bright light. Morgan said that two years ago, he
conducted a survey right here in and everyone preferred a
conventional screen with good colour rendition to one that had poor colour
but was more readable in bright daylight. The Debian-based Linux OS also
looks and feels more conventional and can easily be used by anyone
accustomed to Windows – unlike the OLPC’s altogether different human
The wireless LAN component is a standard 802.11G unit from Marvel. “Meshing
was a very interesting idea, but when you put it in a classroom, it’s the
equivalent of passing paper notes to all your friends. As a former teacher,
would I want that? I don’t think so,” he said. As for the question of
providing connectivity across areas that the OLPC’s mesh WiFi promises,
Morgan thinks that soon enough we will have WiMax that will address that
need with more standard equipment.
Profits from the endeavour are channelled back into the Gerry Morgan
foundation, which invests in poor regions sometimes for computers, sometimes
for other basic infrastructure. The first project is a school in for
around 200 AIDS orphans. The entire project is designed to be self
sustaining, which means that each system is sold at a small profit in order
to make the ecosystem viable and scalable.
Ink Media is ready to scale up production with its partners in
early as January but before that can happen, Morgan is travelling the world
meeting governments trying to convince them of his vision and gain their
“The idea of low cost computers is a very important economic strategy and it
has to become a national priority in every country. Up until now, the entire
computing revolution has touched less than 20 percent of the world’s
population. We are about to have the second revolution, and yes, I believe
the end goal can be achieved within my lifetime,” he said.
Today, the Ink-Media Personal Mobile Notebook can be ordered in bulk for
US$250 per unit and a desktop version – which has the same processor and
internals but is to expected to be hooked up to a second hand monitor,
keyboard and mouse – can be had for as little as $160.
http://www.bangkokp ost.com/Database /31Oct2007_ data01.php