Friday, December 21, 2007

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC): First Impression Review

one laptop per childWhen I first heard about the $100 laptop project I was really excited at the concept. I thought "This will empower all individuals in a society to have access to information and to participate in the global economy." Denizens of poor nations may not have factories in their countries, or natural resources, but each individual has a mind. Whether that person be in Nebraska or Nigeria, they both have the potential to be the next Warren Buffett. It's about the opportunities and barriers presented to them. Giving children a laptop, when they barely have enough food, clothing and shelter seems foolish and rings or a warped South Park cartoon.

In reality, though, these children have the same intellectual potential as any child in the US. Empowering this generation with knowledge is the single greatest tools to stop the cycle of problems. Yes, we all know that it's better to teach someone to fish rather than give them fish. The OLPC project goes beyond that and not only teaches them how to fish, but how to design the fishing pole and raise the fish to maximize yield and minimize impact on the environment.

When I found out *I* could buy one of these laptops and be a part of the project, I raced to participate. I was up at 5am to make sure I could keep refreshing my browser to get the first one. I believed I was part of something that could have as much impact on society as the Gutenberg press. Sure, I'm an idealist, but so is Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

When my OLPC laptop arrived I opened it so fast I sliced my finger open. Honestly and truly. I was disappointed there was no documentation (and no T-Mobile free access information). A letter said to go to the web for more information. Of course, the website was down...or rather just extremely overloaded as the page kept timing out.

The first problem I had was how to open it. It wasn't intuitive. There was no handle or clasp indicating how to open the device. In my struggles I did get to examine the seams on the plastic. They were sturdy, and none "gave" indicating where I could open it. I decided to flip the rabbit ears and then it opened. No big deal, but couldn't they have put a symbol indicating how to open it? Just a simple arrow?

I then gave it a name and choose my colors. Limited choice, but that's ok. Why couldn't they integrate some fun kid functions like on the Wii and let you design the colors you wanted instead of picking from preselected designs? Next I was faced with a bunch of circles with my avatar in the middle. It reminded me heavily of Bezerk or Robotron 2084. I eventually realized this was a list of networks. I found my SSID and clicked to connect and put in my WPA password. Didn't work. I then used my main computer to go the OLPC web site and found out that WPA isn't fully yet implemented. Arrrgh. So I reset my router to WEP and got on. I still don't know what the "mesh networks" listed are or what the colors mean, if anything.

When these are given to children who have never used a computer before, the system should be very easy to figure out. Granted, I grew up with computers all my life, so I don't know what it's like to see your first computer. Like a child, I started pressing buttons and found out what things did. I found the browser and surfing was actually quite good. However it was horribly slow and my cell phone is significantly faster. Nonetheless my Gmail loaded, as did Google documents and spreadsheets meaning that I had access to a MS compatible word processor and spreadsheet.

Typing on the laptop was a challenge. I realize these are designed for kids' hands, but I think any child who would have the manually dexterity to type properly would probably find the keys too small. It wasn't any worse than the portable bluetooth keyboard I have for my cell phone. In addition, the keys were spaced well part and I rarely found myself double typing like I do on other devices.

I then went to Youtube...videos didn't play because in the effort to be 100% open source, they don't have an Adobe Flash player but an open source equivalent.

I then tried the "eBook" type function by moving the screen and hiding the keyboard and touchpad. The screen has navigational controls on the side and even let's you change the orientation of the screen in 90 degree angles. I was able to page up and down on the page and move it left to right. Only problem is I had no way of clicking on the page. Arrrgh. That isn't very useful. What's the point of the eBook if you can't go to the next page. I'm a reasonably smart guy, but I couldn't figure out the bookmark function or if you can have tabbed browsing.

I gave up and went to the RSS newsreader. No dice. Couldn't get any of my feeds to work. Even the included feeds didn't work. Well, that's a bust. Speaking of bust, by this time, I had been using it two hours and the fully charged battery died. This was supposed to energy efficient for long treks in the desert?

There are a host of other programs included and I tried them all. Most are examples like a video recorder, calculator and a "turtle" that is a modern implementation of LOGO. I approached them like a child would: press buttons and see what happens. Nothing did. Kids museums are based on the fact that children like to touch things and see an effect. I'd press a button, a program would load, but then nothing would move. Arrrgh. That's as bad as telling a youngster "Look...but don't touch"

To an extent, I can understand that this is a proof of concept device. The hardware works and I was even able to hook up a external mouse. Alas, it did not have the SD card reader promised, but that's ok. The keyboard, while small, was well sealed. I'm not going to test it under the elements...but I wouldn't be afraid of using it in harsh conditions. I wouldn't leave my laptop in the car all day, but I'd feel comfortable with this. I wouldn't worry about a case for it. I think it could take some abuse.

The failure of the software functions to work right is annoying, but not insurmountable. I've used beta software before and this unit is clearly a beta. The beauty of open source is that these problems will be fixed by the user community. Instead of relying on a group of programmers in a corporate office, this device will rely on the world's brain trust to make it better. Why are there like a zillion plug-ins for firefox....same concept!

My greatest concern is the interface. It just doesn't make sense. They call it "Sugar" but it's pretty sour to me. Again, I've never lived without computers and I can't guess how a child in Africa might view how a computer works. In reality though, they won't be drop shipping these laptops. People in the US will be trained to train people in Africa to train people in the villages. are those teachers going to figure out this unit? It has to be based on concepts that teachers would recognize. If I'm a tech and I can't quickly figure this stuff out, how is a third grade teacher going to teach a teacher in Africa these concepts?

I'm disappointed, but hopeful. This is so much more than a laptop, it's a tool for change. The founding principle is “It's an education project, not a laptop project." The laptop is actually pretty good, but the project is failing. I simply can't see this interface being usable without a significant overhaul. In addition , the failure to have proper documentation is a significant hindrance to adoption by decision makers. How is a world leader going to be able to figure out how to use it? I wouldn't buy these for my school even if it were $25. The laptops just don't make sense. Without the education project behind it, these will be used to send out some more phishing attempts of 419 scams.

I'm sure the idea was to get this laptop in as many hands of influential people as possible. They'll then provide the buzz to keep the project alive and get open source programmers on the bandwagon. OLPC is facing stiff competition from Intel and Asus: both are coming out with $200 laptops that could run more familiar operating systems like windowed linux, or even a scaled back version of Windows. While OLPC is a non-profit, these other companies are for profit and can take a loss in order to push OLPC out of the market. OLPC was smart to get these laptops in the hands of as many people as possible in order to create and "installed base" to protect themselves from being crushed by Asus and Intel. OLPC is already successful in it's mission because whether it's a OLPC or a Asus eee PC in the hands of these children, they *will* be getting laptops. If OLPC however fades away, then Asus and Intel can quickly raise prices going back to their old practices of focusing on profit instead of social change.

Will the OLPC be recorded as the next major technology in the advanced of civilization? Will the OLPC be the equivalent of a Gutenberg bible or the Magna Carta? That depends on the open source community. As it stands right now, the OLPC is less powerful and harder to figure out than your average $49-after-rebate cell phone. If it stays in that stage, it will be a crying shame. However, I'm an idealist, and the more people talking about OLPC, the more people showing up at coffee shops with it and airports with it, the more likely programmers will get on board and make the laptop even better. When I saw these laptops were going for $400 on ebay, I seriously thought about selling mine. But $400 is too cheap to sell your dream of making the world a better place: one laptop at a time.

BOTTOM LINE: A great concept worthy of continuing, but don't be fooled for a second that this is ready for implementation. Buy it to share in the dream, not for a useful computing device