Jim Gettys has been a software pioneer on open source systems for over 20 years. From his role as a primary developer of the X Window System at MIT in 1984 (which forms the basis of Linux and Unix graphical interfaces), through to editing the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) HTTP/1.1 protocol and founding the handhelds.org project (from which all Linux handheld and mobile phone development stems from), the only thing Gettys hasn't tried his hand at is solving world hunger. But he decided to start with the developing world's education crisis first, and now finds himself as Vice President of Software for the One Laptop per Child project.
Before he arrives in Australia for linux.conf.au in January, Gettys took some time out to share some thoughts on the OLPC project with Mitchell Bingemann.
How and why did you get involved with the One Laptop per Child project?
It was a cross of circumstance and being in a particular place at a particular time. I had heard about the project before its serious public launch from Alan Kay, and was intrigued enough by it to go see Nicholas Negroponte to talk to him about it. And I knew the software was eminently do-able, having been one of the people who worked on bringing Linux to handheld devices.
But the nail in the coffin was when some months later, HP decided to close the lab I was part of, which made my personal circumstances much clearer.
Could you briefly describe your role with the OLPC project?
I am the Vice President of Software. In short, I worry about our overall software, exclusive of the educational software and content, where others such as Walter Bender have much more expertise.
Can you detail some of the restraints you have come across in developing a laptop for children from areas with little or no infrastructure, and how you are getting over these hurdles?
There are a lot but power and sunlight readability are two of the major constraints we face.
Most kids in the world have no electricity at home; even at school, power may not exist or be reliable. A machine that can be powered by a child with a generator they can carry constrains the amount of power you can use tremendously. Experience has shown, with conventional desktops or laptops, that even if you have generators at schools, the largest expense is often fuel for those generators.
Many kids are taught out of doors in the sun, or need to be able to study out of doors requiring a special monitor such as Mary Lou Jepsen's display that is usable in direct sunlight.
Ruggedness is also a major issue: conventional keyboards, or systems with disks and fans, are unsuitable and could not survive the environment of many parts of the world, particularly in the hands of children so we're using flash memory, and a membrane keyboard.