Cambridge, Mass. Forget windows, folders and boxes that pop up with text. When students in Thailand, Libya and other developing countries get their $150 computers from the One Laptop Per Child project in 2007, their experience will be unlike anything on standard PCs.
For most of these children, the XO machine, as it's called, likely will be the first computer they've ever used. Because the students have no expectations for what PCs should be like, the laptop's creators started from scratch in designing a user interface they figured would be intuitive for children.
The result is as unusual as - but possibly even riskier than - other much-debated aspects of the machine, such as its economics and distinctive hand-pulled mechanism for charging its battery. (XO has been known as the $100 laptop because of the ultra-low cost its creators eventually hope to achieve through mass production.)
For example, students who turn on the small green-and-white computers will be greeted by a basic home screen with a stick-figure icon at the center, surrounded by a white ring. The entire desktop has a black frame with more icons.
This runic setup signifies the student at the middle. The ring contains programs the student is running, which can be launched by clicking the appropriate icon in the black frame.
When the student opts to view the entire "neighborhood" - the XO's preferred term instead of "desktop" - other stick figures in different colors might appear on the screen. Those indicate schoolmates who are nearby, as detected by the computers' built-in wireless networking capability.
Moving the PC's cursor over the classmates' icons will pull up their names or photos. With further clicks the students can chat with each other or collaborate on things - an art project, say, or a music program on the computer, which has built-in speakers.
The design partly reflects a clever attempt to get the most from the machine's limited horsepower. To keep costs and power demands low, XO uses a slim version of the Linux operating system, a 366-megahertz processor from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and no hard disk drive. Instead it has 512 megabytes of flash memory, plus USB 2.0 ports where more storage could be attached.
But the main design motive was the project's goal of stimulating education better than previous computer endeavors have. Nicholas Negroponte, who launched the project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab two years ago before spinning One Laptop into a separate nonprofit, said he deliberately wanted to avoid giving children computers they might someday use in an office.
"In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint," Negroponte wrote in an e-mail interview. "I consider that criminal because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools."
To that end, folders are not the organizing metaphor on these machines, unlike most computers since Apple Computer Inc. launched the first Mac in 1984. The knock on folders is that they force users to remember where they stored their information rather than what they used it for.
Instead, the XO machines are organized around a "journal," an automatically generated log of everything the user has done on the laptop. Students can review their journals to see their work and retrieve files created or altered in those sessions.
Not a toy
Despite these school-focused frameworks, its creators bristle at any suggestion XO is a mere toy. A wide range of programs can run on it, including a Web browser, a word processor and an RSS reader - the software that delivers blog updates to information junkies.
The computer also has features anyone would love, notably a built-in camera and a color display that converts to monochrome so it's easier to see in sunlight.
"I have to laugh when people refer to XO as a weak or crippled machine and how kids should get a 'real' one," Negroponte wrote. "Trust me, I will give up my real one very soon and use only XO. It will be far better, in many new and important ways."
Although the end result is new, the lead software integrator, Chris Blizzard of Red Hat Inc., said 90 percent of the underlying programming code was cobbled together from technologies that long existed in the open-source programming community.
In keeping with that open nature, details and simulations of the user interface, nicknamed Sugar, have been available online, to mixed reviews.
Some bloggers have said that even as Sugar avoids complexities inherent in the familiar operating systems from Microsoft Corp. or Apple, it just creates a different set of complexities to be mastered.
How hard that is should be one key measure of the project's success. One Laptop plans to send a specialist to each school who will stay for a month helping teachers and students get started. But Negroponte believes that kids ultimately will learn the system by exploring it and then teaching each other.