My thoughts on the OLPC.
Posted on May 27, 2007
Awhile back I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the beta XO-1 units of the OLPC. For those of you who are not familiar with the OLPC, it is a really neat hardware unit targeted towards developing cultures and societies. From Wikipedia:
The XO-1, previously known as the $100 Laptop or Children’s Machine, is a proposed inexpensive laptop computer intended to be distributed to children around the world, especially to those in developing countries, to provide them with access to knowledge and modern forms of education. The laptop is being developed by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) trade association. OLPC is a U.S. based, non-profit organization created by faculty members of the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute the laptops.
This laptop is really nifty. Its targeted towards children. Its small, colorful and very technologically advanced (when compared to other children’s machines). It runs Linux, has a great suite of free software and has some amazing hardware. My favorite part is the screen. It has this amazing dual mode screen. It is either color with a decent resolution, or black and white with a much higher resolution. When you turn it to black and white, the screen becomes completely usable in direct sunlight. When you use it in high light situations, the screen becomes almost eInk like. It is really solid. It looks better and redraws faster than the eInk readers I have used. Amazing. By far my favorite part. I like to think that this technology will appear in mobile phones and other laptops.
So anyway, this little handy device is being developed by cool and great computer hackers - brandishing free software solutions and nifty hacks to create compelling software to power this laptop for the worlds children. They have made all sorts of great progress and have done some really neat things (My favorite is the tubes work - streaming application data over XMPP - maybe this is the future?!). They also created a x-windows window manager called sugar that is very different and innovative. It is not similar to very many windowing solutions we have seen. The menu system and the general interface is a bit different than windows or OSX. I think it is very usable. When watching people use it for the first time, you see them struggle - but then catch up. But they are using their pre-conceived notions on how the interface should work (stupid windows).
So the organizational side of this is laptop.org. They are in charge and run the whole show. Its pretty solid. They are currently shopping around the OLPC to various developing nations to find adopters willing to buy large quantities to give to their children.
So anyway - enough summary.
I have had the XO-1 for about a month. In that time I have demonstrated it for a bundle of people. I showed it to the CHIPY meeting, to everyone at my work and to a city of Chicago alderman. Everyone is struck by how compelling it is. I think that the OLPC program is quite possibly a very disruptive program. Every person I showed it to instantly wanted to play with it. They were excited about it. Most everyone asked how they could get one. They were all disappointed that it wasn’t readily available or that they couldn’t just make it available with money. One of the funny things was that most of the people I demonstrated it to who didn’t have kids yet mentioned that they want this to succeed so that they could give it to their kids.
The combination of free software and unique hardware design makes the OLPC very attractive to all peoples. The laptop.org organization has stated that it isn’t a goal to provide laptops to the 1st world, they are solely targeting the developing nations. However, I think that the work being done here has set the bar for a much better solution for children’s technology - regardless of the proposed target audience. Most people after seeing the OLPC, would balk at purchasing one of those shoddy education toy computers for their kids. They are more expensive, less durable and have paltry technology.
I read it very well in a comment on a blog awhile back:
The OLPC is disruptive to the third world and may come around like a boomerang and end up being disruptive to the developed world as well. If the third world can have OLPC then why can’t we? It is clear from the writings of seymour papert and alan kay that their idea is to present a different, better way to do all of education
I wonder how long it will take for the OLPC to bounce back to the developed nations. How long will parents look at this program and see how awesome and successful it is (purely from a technology or resources standpoint) and want the same product for their children? I think that could happen really fast. I know that my friends with kids would buy them today.
Regardless of the OLPC’s success in the developing nations, it will change how computers are treated. This project will help sow the seeds of future projects that will hopefully end or at least bridge the digital divide. I hope to see derivatives that include One Laptop Per Senior Citizen, or maybe One or Two Laptops Per Family. Placing cheap hardware and free software into places where their isn’t that.
If you want more information or would like to help, check out the following resources:
If you are my friend and would like to check out the OLPC - let me know. I would love to show you. If you are not my friend, join the Chicago interest group mailing list. We will be having some meetups to jam and talk about OLPC solutions.
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