OSU students Justin Gallardo, left, and Michael Burns brought the One Laptop per Child project to OSU’s Open Source Lab, where Burns works as a systems administrator and Gallardo as a student developer.
The controversy over the so called "$100 laptop" has been almost as thick as the press coverage.
Critics have scoffed at the nonprofit scheme to make millions of portable computers for third–world children, calling it a "pipe dream" born of "hubris." Since the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project was launched at the MIT Media Lab in 2005, it has made headlines in leading TV and print outlets — CNN, ABC, BBC and 60 Minutes, The New York Times, Fortune and The Washington Post, to name a few. One commentator sneered at the "media fawning" over the ambitious brainchild of MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte. A high–tech executive ridiculed the small, plastic, crank–power laptop as the "$100 gadget."
Undeterred, a pair of computer–science geeks in OSU’s Open Source Lab were clamoring for a chance to join the project. Ignoring the naysayers, sophomores Michael Burns and Justin Gallardo were blown away by the vision of 6–year–olds in Nigeria surfing the Net and 9–year–olds in Thailand exchanging e–mail. If children in the remotest villages of Brazil or Uganda could someday access global Web sites, play computer games and design software, the two longtime friends from Keizer, Oregon, wanted to help.
So they pestered project leaders for an opportunity to volunteer. Finally, OLPC threw them a bone: Modify the word–processing software to run on the laptop. Oh, and do it in a week.
Sustained by pepperoni pizza and Red Bull, Gallardo pulled the ultimate all–nighter. Locked into a kind of coding trance — that otherworldly "zone" known to truly creative people — for 36 unbroken hours, the 20–year–old programmer accomplished the custom adaptation that would make the open source software compatible with the 9–inch–square, green–and–white computers with their miniature keyboards scaled to little fingers.
Gallardo shrugs off the feat — and the sleep deprivation. "It was for the greater good," he says. Burns, who initiated and cultivated the OLPC connection,is also motivated by altruism. "There’s no more heartwarming feeling in the world," he says, "than to know I helped kids pursue their dreams, even a little bit."
Heartwarming, too, was the half–million–dollar corporate donation to the OSU Open Source Lab that soon followed. In January, Seattle–based
RealNetworks Inc. gave $500,000 to the lab after executives visited the facility on campus. "We were very impressed with the eagerness of the Open Source Lab team to dive deeper into building digital media applications and the opportunity to support the efforts of the One Laptop per Child organization," says Martin Schwartz of RealNetworks, a collaborator in the OLPC project. The gift enabled the lab to hire a full–time engineer, who is now working with a four student team headed by Gallardo to modify the open source Helix multimedia player for the laptop, dubbed the "XO." For his part, Burns spent the summer interning at One Laptop per Child’s Boston headquarters.
"The Open Source Lab is a place that enables innovation," says Deborah Bryant, the lab’s public–sector communities manager. "It’s unique. There isn’t another lab like it at a university."