OLPC's operating system is available for download
If you've never heard of the OLPC project maybe the words One Laptop Per Child will ring a bell in your head, as this project has been covered by many news reports world wide, be they IT inclined or just your seven o'clock news. OLPC is a US non-profit organization created by MIT Media Lab Faculty members aimed at developing a cheap (the eventual goal is $100USD per laptop) and easy to use computer for children in developing countries. The idea is for governments to purchase the machines then distribute them one laptop per child to accelerate their current education system. The scheme is designed for countries which could benefit from an improved education system, where one cheap laptop could replace countless expensive and fragile textbooks, not for those which are more in need of clean water and staple food.
The laptops (sometimes referred to as "XO") are built using completely Free and Open Source technology, from the "Sugar" user interface which the children interact with right down to the system's BIOS and hardware drivers. The project is only made possible using such software because the machines are an educational tool, and making children learn new things on a device containing hidden or restricted information would be hypocritical to say the least (the machines even have a "View Source" button on the keyboard to bring up highly readable Python code for study). Built on top of the Fedora Linux distribution the machines offer a fresh perspective on the traditional graphical user interface, which is arguably oriented around office workers, and directly incorporates the hardware abilities of the machines such as long-range wireless "mesh" networking (where the units automatically forward requests between distant neighbours). Instead of a desktop there are different "zoomed" areas, with "activities" (applications such as Painting or Writing) being inside a "home" view of the laptop, which is inside a neighbourhood of local machines which is in turn inside a view of all available units. This novel combination of wireless networking and user interface lets the children interact transparently with each other, even the activities allow multiple children to collaborate on pictures, stories or whatever else they can think of and save using a system with correct attribution added for each piece (ensuring homework is legitimate). Chat with other XOs (a graphical representation of the child/laptop in the various zoom levels) and other functionality is accessed through a self-hiding frame (similar to a desktop panel). Screenshots of this Sugar interface are here and the documentation is an interesting read here.
This project has truly reinvented the user interface model of computers around ease of use and collaborative involvement. These are not novelty items, toys or even laptops in the traditional sense. They are completely focused on their goal of spreading education, going so far as to invent a new type of flat screen which is not only safe for children to dismantle and repair, but is also more efficient and performs better in bright light than current technology! If you want to try out a test system for yourself, perhaps to develop for it, images containing the system along with proof-of-concept software such as a cut-down Abiword can be downloaded here and used in an emulator or written to CD. If you cannot program but would still like to help out then you could try improving the freely licensed collaborative textbooks for use in the project available here. This is not about open source software, this is not about new user interfaces and this is not about making a cool laptop. This is about changing the world and letting previously underpriviledged people improve their own lives and those of others through better education, and achieve their potential to humanity through collaboration and community.