Negroponte and the MIT Media Lab (which he co-founded) conceived the idea of providing low-cost computers to youngsters around the world in 2005, spawning One Laptop Per Child, an independent nonprofit to manage the enormous project. Negroponte worked with the MIT brain trust and a range of designers and software visionaries to develop the laptop, now called XO, 2500 units of which shipped to launch countries (including Brazil, Nigeria, Libya and Thailand) in February (the initial design will actually cost more like $140; $100 is the target for future versions).
Negroponte calls it "an education project," not a computer project. The basic idea behind OLPC was to enlist kids' own energy and will to learn in the battle for education in places where they may not even have access to basic educational infrastructure—and do it on a mass level.
The initial laptop designs were courtesy of Design Continuum, with Yves Behar's Fuseproject developing the current XO prototype, manufactured by Taiwan's Quanta Computer. The brightly colored, plastic-cased XO doesn't look like a typical laptop and isn't built like one, but the performance is there—it runs on Flash memory (no hard drive), it's got a built in camera and mic and runs browsing, email/chat, word processing (as well as toys and A/V) programs. OLPC mandated that the computers must be equipped to run on battery and human power (10 hour battery life; with the option to run on a pedal crank); screens must be sunlight-friendly and provide a light source for use at night; and must be networked. Computers will connect to each other via wireless mesh networking and kids can get on the internet at school where available, or share an internet connection with anyone on their network. The laptop runs on an open-source Red Hat Linux operating system. Perhaps its most notable feature in terms of the wider world of computer design is XO's brand new graphical user interface, called Sugar, which represents the first major break from the standard desktop design in over 20 years. The interface is based around a simple character icon (an x with an o on top, hence the name); any applications in use appear around the character and any friends in the network neighborhood also appear nearby.
Critics of the project have wondered why not just build more schools or send money. But OLPC represents a total shift, one that can't help but further education thinking in terms of putting tools directly in children's hands and encouraging children to, as OLPC says, "learn learning."