The OLPC XO-1, Shortcut to the Information Age

So I got my OLPC XO-1 in the mail about a month ago, and I’m still wrestling with my opinion of it. Personally I think it’s the bee’s knees. Everyone who comes into the comic shop fawns over it. I’m the envy of the local geek crowd.

I love it when people ask me, “What’s that?” and I get to extol the virtues of Nick Negroponte’s beautiful vision of supplying underprivileged children all over the world with their own laptops to learn art, reading, mathematics, programming, science, and connect them with the entire world as their classroom. Just like so many people here in America have done through the Internet.

“Huh. But don’t those poor kids have more pressing concerns, like survival, that need to come first?” they always reply in some form or another, and the heart-bubbles floating around my head all pop and I wake up, blinking dumbly.

Which brings me to my conflict. While I dig the OLPC XO-1, will it serve its purpose of enlightening young minds all over the world? Even I laughed at Newt Gingrich when he suggested we provide the homeless with laptops, but now I’m not so sure.

People get stuck in this idea that other nations need to repeat every step of America’s history to achieve America’s quality of life. China can either work through America’s entire history of building a middle class that will demand its own fair workplace standards, or Americans can exert economic pressure on China to do away with its sweatshops. Similarly, third-world countries can step through fossil-fuel power plants, or they can skip straight to renewable energy.

Why reinvent the wheel? The OLPC is a shortcut for lesser-developed nations. Why not help them skip being a second-world country and go straight to the Information Age, with all its collaborative memetic innovation? I say get them into the Global Village ASAP. The sooner they start using LEDs, solar panels, and well-water pumps, the sooner they’ll start contributing their own inventions, software, art, and literature to the world.

OLPC as an E-Book

OLPC as an E-Book
Image Courtesy OLPC Foundation

On the downside. This laptop is hand-me-down softwares and technologies. The hand-me-down 433mhz processors with hand-me-down 256k RAM. Hardware-wise, this brand new laptop is my brand new PC from 1993. Software-wise the hand-me-down Sim City is the same one that ran on my Apple IIe in Junior High, but I’ve got a better opinion of the rest of the software suite further down.

So is the $200 price tag justified? The software’s open-source, so there’s $0 of the total. A refurnished Thinkpad runs $200-$300, but this is brand new. Former OLPC CTO, Mary Lou Jepsen, is now working on a $75 laptop. How they intend to accomplish this when they couldn’t accomplish it with the OLPC is anybody’s guess, but the competition among charities will definitely spurn more innovation. The $200 price tag is very prohibitive to the OLPC’s ultimate success.

On the plus-side, the hardware has features that are uniquely perfect for the OLPC’s intended recipients. Practically speaking. This is a rugged little #$%@ of a machine. A fully charged battery runs for hours (three hours for one of my sessions). The twin wifi antenna are rubberized and folded in to serve as a locking mechanism for the laptop when closed. With flash memory storage, I don’t have to worry about bouncing it around and wrecking the hardrive, and stuffing all the main components behind the screen means it doesn’t make your sperm-count decline uncomfortably when it sits in your lap.

The keyboard is a rubber mat, which is awesomely spill-proof and would feel great if it wasn’t so tiny. I read one hacker’s first mod to his XO-1 was to convert it to a Dvorak keyboard layout. What’s the point? I’m reduced to hunt-and-peck mode using my forefingers when I type on it, but that’s okay because the keyboard isn’t meant for my adult hands, and when my friend’s five-year-old daughter got her hands on the laptop, she looked like a pro typing utter gibberish into it’s Journaling Software.

The monitor flips completely around and folds flat on the laptop, turning it into an e-book reader. This is a really nice feature, and one that makes this laptop a real keeper for me. If nothing else, I’ve now got a screen bigger than my cellphone to read all the free books I download from Project Gutenberg, and a laptop with the battery life to survive a long flight.

OLPC Network Neighborhood

OLPC Network Neighborhood
Image Courtesy OLPC Foundation

So this is a sweetly innovative, however overpriced, bit of technology. Which brings me to the second most common objection I get to the OLPC, “Are kids in third-world countries even going to be able to use that thing?”

The assumption here is that this learning toy is beyond the technological grasp of children living in villages without electricity. That somehow people deprived of Best Buy, Cinema Multiplexes, and the mind-numbing inanity of American Idol lack the cognitive foundation for Computing 101. Whenever a Baby Boomer raises this objection, I just remind myself that they are from the same generation that couldn’t program a VCR.

The reality is that the OLPC’s linux user interface sorta takes me back to my Commodore 64 days, when computing was just the basics. Only my Commodore’s interface was a command line, (LOAD *,8,1 anyone?), whereas the OLPC is cartoony and graphical. Kids will get into this thing and make it sing in ways the developers never anticipated. Just like kids run technological circles around their elders in modern America.

The OLPC provides plenty of pre-loaded software that will educate in a well-rounded fashion. The Video, Picture, and Sound Capture capabilities using the built in video and microphone introduce students to multimedia. The journal provides a creative writing outlet, while the Paint and TamTamJam softwares allow for art and music creative outlets.

Etoys and Turtle Art introduce kids to programming logic, while Pippy introduces kids to the joys of Python Programming, the easiest, most advanced programming language out there. Through these, kids are introduced to mathematics, building their own software toys, and logical constructs.

Most of all, the web browser introduces them to the world’s knowledge. The chat introduces them to world’s people.

They’re doing all this on an open-source operating system, where they can eventually incorporate what they learn into publishing their own improvements and innovations to the World Wide Web, where the rest of us will enjoy them.

That’s dream worth supporting, not to mention a huge return on our investment.






9 responses to “The OLPC XO-1, Shortcut to the Information Age”