On the XO Laptop

terraputer xo-laptop: The XO Laptop is a Terraputer

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[First published as on November 23, 2007.]

Here is a quick history of free and open-source software:

  • 1977-1987: code developer at Berkeley under government contract, including vi/sendmail/… is use ever since;
  • 1987-1997: Unix market fragments, FSF starts; Berners-Lee starts Internet on open standards; Linus Torvalds starts Linus;
  • 1997-2007: Unix and Internet/web evolve together synergistically (each fueling the other’s growth); major vendors improve Linux; Linux accepted for server use in enterprise

Here is my prediction for the next decade:

  • 2007-2017: Free and open-source software wlll become widely used and deployed on a global scale in public service: education, crisis/disaster management, open formats for storing library and museum content, and so forth.

We now have at hand a quite complete free and open-source software “stack” that extends all the way from an open implementation of the BIOS code that is the first software run when a computer is powered up, all the way up to the use of Linux in BlueGene/p, the world’s largest supercomputer.

Yes, there are some missing pieces, but few people appreciate just how much high-quality software is available at no charge.

So let’s assume there is a lot of good open-source ready to be put to use to serve the public. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a computer specially built just to run that open-source? Indeed it would, so let us run a little design experiment, which I will cast in the form of a dialog:

Programmer (P): I would like a computer built just to run open-source. I want it be complete. Make it a laptop, a couple of USB ports, microphone, audio, built-in video camera, easy to use. Oh, you needn’t feel bound by current conventions; for example, you needn’t put in a CAPS-LOCK key. Wireless would be nice too.

Engineer (E): (Silently to self) These folks seems ok. No CAPS-LOCK key! These are my kind of folks. [1]

E: How much can I spend?

P: It must cost less than $256.

E: Ok. Let me get back to you.

(Time passes…)

E: Got it. We have a design that will meet your needs, and it is will under $250. Would you rather drive cost down or add some new features?

P: Hmmm. Could it be used to run Windows? Can you keep the cost at or below $200. That’s what it costs to buy a copy of Windows and the key components of Microsoft Office.

E: Yes.

P: Shrink memory size and hard disk size until it will be impossible for Microsoft to port Windows to this machine. We know Linux. We know how to write tight code. They don’t.

Time passes…

E: Done. We can still add some more. What next?

P: We just got a note from Chamindra de Silva and the Sahana folks. They are making good progress, but need a rugged computer that requires as little electricity as possible. Can you build one that uses less power than a night light, one that can be powered by a hand or foot-driver generator?

E: That’s a tough one. We’ll get back to you.

Time passes …

E: Done. We can add just a little more. What next?

P: Make it rugged and reliable. No moving parts. Able to run in extreme cold or extreme hot, so it can be used almost anywhere in the world.

E: That’s really tough, but we’ll have a go.

Time passes…

E: Done. Indeed we are so proud we would like to call it XO, after the initials of our chief designer. [2]

P: No, we already have a name in mind. You have just designed the first truly global computing platform based entirely on free and open-source software. We are going to call it a “terraputer,” meaning a “computer for the whole world.”

E: What’s that?

P: I’ll let Dave tell you.

(Dialogue ends)

I made up a new word a few minutes ago: “terraputer.” See xo-laptop, terraputer: terra plus putare gives terraputer.

The XO-1 laptop, the first complete device produced by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project, is more, much more, than a low-cost, low-power laptop intended to help educate children in the less developed parts of the world.

It is a complete computing system, based entirely on free and open-source for the basic infrastructure and core applications. As such, it is the first true “terraputer,” a computer designed to be useable in as many parts of the world at possible, using software that is available at no cost, and which comes under a license that lets anyone with the necessary programming skills bend it to their will.


1. I read recently the Nicholas Negroponte, director of the OLPC project, directed the design team to NOT include a Caps-Lock key in the XO. He is a man after my own heart. One of my first steps in installing a new operating system is to change the settings for the Caps-Lock key so it functions as a Control (Ctrl) key. This can easily be done using either the Gnome and Kde Linux desktop environments. For Windows, I use the excellent free shareware program KeyTweak, written by Travis Krumsick.

2. I don’t know where “XO” came from. It was a poor choice. The OLPC team should have picked something with the following property: when you search Google for it there are no entries, or no more than five.

3. That is how I came up with “terraputer.” I got two matches when I first search Google for it. This post will result in the third, and I hope many more will follow.


Written by daveshields

December 12, 2007 at 2:34 pm

Posted in xo-laptop

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