Check out this ambitious modular laptop–tablet hybrid for kids

An Australian offshoot of the One Laptop Per Child project is developing a new device for children that will convert from a tablet into a laptop and can be upgraded through hardware modules.

The new OLPC device, named XO-infinity, aims for a “lifespan of 10 years, not obsolete in 2.” The modules and docking system developed by One Education are reminiscent of Google’s Project Ara, a similarly ambitious undertaking launching later this year which is developing a modular smartphone that could retail under $50.

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The XO-infinity can be used both as a tablet and a laptop. In addition to making the device easier to upgrade, repair and support, the modularity will also help the XO-infinity adapt to each child’s needs. To change modules, it looks as if you first have to pull off a silicone case that keeps the components underneath it safe, in the interest of durability. Planned modules include those for batteries, cameras, screens, and Wi-Fi connectivity. It sounds like based on the modules used, the device can run Android, Windows, or Linux.

“An ARM processor supporting Android may be right for children under 10, but a child in her last year of primary school could benefit hugely from the power to simply slot in a Linux or Windows supporting x86 module,” One Education founder Rangan Srikhanta wrote on Medium.

Before developing the XO-infinity, One Education created charging stations, online apps and teacher education programs for an One Laptop Per Child device, the XO-1, which is starting to reach the end of its useful life. OLPC is Nick Negroponte’s project started in 2005 to bring low-cost computing devices to children around the world.

The device isn’t ready to be tested yet, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. It’s being revealed now, but it’s only a prototype. The first working model is expected in August, with the first devices shipping to the public early next year. However, if you’ve followed OLPC devices in the past, you’ve found they are often delayed or initially over-ambitious. One Education has funding from the Australian government, but it clearly doesn’t have the resources of a tech giant like Google.

Tech specs aren’t available yet, but One Education is promising them in the “coming weeks.” I’m interested in seeing whether it’s building on top of Google’s open hardware designs (like Project Ara) or if it’s using a competing technology like PuzzlePhone.

“The concept stage is over, industrial design is well underway, and the electronics prototyping is being developed right now?—?using smart, open technologies,” Srikhanta wrote.

But in the meantime, check out One Education’s renders of the device. The OLPC initiative’s main goal is to ensure every child in the world has access to a primary school education that includes technology literacy, but it’s generating some cool technology ideas on its way there.ortho

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Alan Kay, credited with inventing the concept of the laptop in 1968, has been lambasting computer makers for not maximizing its potential ever since. One device might get close to even Kay’s high standards: The tablet computer that Apple is expected to unveil tomorrow.

Battle of the Vaporware Tablets

Do you know what tablet computers and jetpacks have in common? It’s not a kerosene-burning jet engine strapped to your back, though Adobe Flash on a MacBook can feel like your pants are on fire. The shared problem is that the present reality of future technologies always seems to disappoint, often resulting in products never coming to market.

It’s called vaporware, and that would include the long-rumored Apple tablet. That tablet, like other Apple products that actually exist, has been getting all the attention as of late, and that’s a shame. There are a number of other existentially-challenged tablets not out there right now. Here are my top five, ranked by the likelihood they will remain in the ether for all time.

#5 CrunchPad/JooJoo

Michael Arrington’s CrunchPad was supposed to be “a dead simple tablet for $200,” but has ended up as a combo $500 webpad and Silicon Valley legal drama. Arrington’s partners, FusionGarage, dumped him and claimed ownership of the renamed JooJoo, which means “magical device” in “African.” Note to FusionGarage: “African” is not a language.

Overhyped by Popular Mechanics as one of the “most brilliant” products of 2009, there’s really nothing magical about JooJoo’s specs: 2.4 pounds, 12” display, 4GB SSD, Wi-Fi, camera, up to five hours of battery life. The OS runs a customized Ubuntu and WebKit browser. It’s the ‘browser as the OS’ concept, similar to what Google’s doing with Chromium/Chrome, but without the backing of a company worth $200 billion.

Despite perpetually shipping in “8 to 10 weeks” since early December, and the uncertainty of litigation, JooJoo probably will ship in early 2010. That earns it fifth place among vaporware tablets today.

#4 Freescale Smartbook

Nothing says vaporware like “reference design,” and that’s the Freescale Smartbook. The former Mac PowerPC fabricator showed off a tablet prototype—another vaporware synonym—at CES. Freescale claimed the tablet could be made for $200 and reach market by summer, easy to say when you’re not doing the making.

The Smartbook is built around a 7” display and weighs less than a pound. Internal specifications include a 1 GHz ARM CPU, 512MB RAM, 4 to 64GB storage, microSD slot, Wi-Fi, 3G modem option, and camera. All-day battery life is promised. There’s also an optional keyboard and docking station that when combined with the giant bezel makes the screen look minuscule. The operating system demonstrated at CES is custom Linux, but doesn’t appear much customized for touch.

Unlike the CrunchPad, the Smartbook probably won’t even make it to the perpetually shipping phase of the vaporware life cycle, but at least one has been built.

#3 OLPC XO-3

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization has provided the world’s poorest children more than a million computers and counting, and the XO-3 will never be one of them, but then it doesn’t have to. “We don’t necessarily need to build it,” OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte told Forbes. “We just need to threaten to build it.” With a design goal like that, how can you fail?

Hypothetically available in 2012 for $75, the XO-3 “will feature a new design using a single sheet of flexible plastic and will be unbreakable and without holes in it.” The page-sized display, 8.5 by 11 inches, will have “both reflective and LCD capabilities,” making it viewable in the sun and as an e-reader. Internally, the XO-3 supposedly will have an ARM CPU running at 8 GHz, though Negroponte admits that’s a “provocative” target. You think? People in the Star Trek reboot don’t have kit like this, so yeah, provocative works as well as vaporware.

#2 Microsoft Courier

In 2001, Bill Gates introduced the Tablet PC to the world, and nearly a decade later Steve Ballmer did it again, but not with this device. Instead, a wildly gesticulating Ballmer claimed the “Slate PC” moniker at CES, showing off a nameless, nothing-new tablet from HP that will be available sometime this year, not that anyone cared. People wanted Courier.

That’s the name of this device, as first reported by Gizmodo in September. The booklet—so much for Slate PC—has two 7” displays connected by a hinge, multi-touch and stylus input, camera on back, maybe inductive charging for power. The OS appears to be designed for the device, so it’s not a Windows 7 tablet, and there are plenty of applications designed for it, so it’s not Windows 7 tablet. No word on battery life, price, or availability, except that it’s supposed to be in the “late prototype” stage of development, which makes one wonder why Courier wasn’t at CES.

Just watching the concept video for Courier, how could one not declare Microsoft the winner in the Battle of the Vaporware Tablets? Because once again Apple has been there and done that.

#1 Apple Knowledge Navigator

Even twenty years later, the Apple Knowledge Navigator concept reigns supreme among vaporware tablets. Opening the booklet reveals a pair of magical panels that appear to merge into a single display, that display having speakers on the sides, web camera and data card slot on the top. Nice touch how it tilts upward for typing, but touch is almost an afterthought.

Most of the machine-human interaction is done via a bow-tie wearing “agent,” or AI, through voice. This is vaporware at its finest, not just a demo, but like living in alternate reality, just like Apple in the late ‘80s under John Sculley. We will see whether Apple under Steve Jobs, who killed Apple’s first tablet, the Newton, can do better. Don’t expect talking heads in mock-turtlenecks, but it would be unwise to bet against the real Apple tablet in 2010.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Is The Age of the Web Tablet Finally Upon Us?

Rumor Has It: Apple Sharing Tablet Info With Australian Media?

appleinsider_tabletThe tablet rumor mill is heating up, which is in keeping with the early 2010 release date that’s been mentioned in earlier reports. The latest news to hit the web is that Apple (s aapl) has been talking to the Australian media about content provision for the fanboi device of legend.

The news comes via Australian paper The Sydney Morning Herald, which reports that Apple is providing technical details about the tablet multimedia device (which remains unconfirmed, despite all the buzz surrounding it) to media providers in the hopes of sussing out how strong interest is. Read More about Rumor Has It: Apple Sharing Tablet Info With Australian Media?

Former OLPC Security Guru Headed to Apple

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It may not have the charitable underpinnings of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, but Ivan Kristic couldn’t have asked for a better follow-up job than at Apple (s aapl). Cupertino just snatched up Kristic following his time at OLPC, where he was the architect behind the Bitfrost security specification. He wrote about his new job in a post on his personal blog Monday, and began work at Apple on the same day.

Bitfrost was responsible for password protection, prevention of data loss, hard drive encryption and security updates for the OLPC, which, while not a specific target for hackers, did take an innovative approach to security that Apple could be very interested in learning more about. Somewhat like Google’s (s goog) Chrome browser, Bitfrost runs every active program on a computer in its own virtual OS instance. As a result, a virus or malware in one program can’t hop to another, or infect the computer’s core files and spy on sensitive data. Read More about Former OLPC Security Guru Headed to Apple

Bruce Sterling On OLPC, Mobile Phones

I have been skeptical about both OLPC and the netbooks (which I think are nothing but really really cheap laptops) because I believe that phones — smart or not — are the present and future of technology. That reality is brought into sharp focus every single time I visit India, which now has close to 400 million mobile connections. China, Brazil, Russia… mobile phone sales, despite the slump, are not going to slump. Bruce Sterling, in his speech at Webstock 09 in New Zealand made this point rather bluntly.

All the planet’s poor kids had to have desktop machines. With fiber optic. Sure! You go to Bombay, Shanghai, Lagos even, you’re like “hey kid, how about this OLPC so you can level the playing field with the South Bronx and East Los Angeles?” And he’s like “Do I have to? I’ve already got three Nokias.” The teacher is slapping the cellphone out of his hand because he’s acing the tests by sneaking in SMS traffic. “Half the planet has never made a phone call.” Boy, that’s a shame — especially when pirates in Somalia are making satellite calls off stolen supertankers. The poorest people in the world love cellphones. They’re spreading so fast they make PCs look like turtles.

Actually you should read Bruce’s post over on Wired.com, because it makes the entire Web 2.0 ecosystem look into a trick mirror — with amusing results. (Photo via Flickr by Dipankar Dutta)