To US consumers, that is. The “Give 1 Get 1″ program ended on December 31, 2007. So now that it’s over, and at least hundreds of thousands of Americans have tried it out, what do people think?
My OLPC on an extremely messy desk
The Economist says it’s “One clunky laptop per child.” At least they’ve managed to attract attention with the article: they got me to read it! It’s a negative review, so let’s take a look at exactly what they say, along with my response. [I originally wrote this as a wall post to Sam Park, who linked me to the article. It's long enough that I'd like to repost it here.]
Economist: “Great idea. Shame about the mediocre computer … This is not because the keys are too small for his adult hands (though they are), or because the processor’s slow speed makes the machine frustrating to use (though it does). Nor is it because the track pad sometimes goes screwy and the keys lack the normal pressed-key response that allows smooth typing. It isn’t even because moving the column from the word-processing application to the web-mail system is prohibitively difficult.
Instead, it is because the XO, which your columnist has explored since it arrived a few days before Christmas, has bugs that cause occasional crashes. A discreet message sometimes flashes when the system boots up, warning of some sort of data-check error.”
Me: The OLPC isn’t done yet. As the article conceded, the hardware issues were NOT the main problem. His trouble was the software, which can be fixed in future revisions. The hardware isn’t easily changeable, so that’s what must be done right. And they’ve done it right: it’s a laptop designed for children, but can work for adults.
Economist: “When Nicholas Negroponte, a tech guru at the celebrated Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, launched the initiative in 2005, the vision was grandiose, but the implementation seemed beguilingly simple.”
Me: Nobody said the implementation was “beguilingly simple.” Watch this video (YouTube) for an overview of the (very new and innovative) technology going into the machine.
[Google Tech Talks April 12, 2007 ABSTRACT The mission of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) movement is to ensure that every school-aged child in the lesser-developed parts of the world is able to engage ...]
(It’s definitely nothing like what’s inside “DVD players and mobile phones,” software-wise.)
Economist: “First, the implementation of the technologies is terrible. In their zeal to rewrite the rules of computing for first-time users, OLPC shipped machines with a cumbersome operating system. For example, adding Flash to do something like watch a YouTube video requires users to go into a terminal line-code and type a long internet address to download the software: it seems impossible to cut-and-paste the address.”
Me: This has nothing to do with OLPC’s reinvention of the user interface (known as “Sugar”). This is because Flash is proprietary and there are legal issues with shipping Adobe’s non-free (as in freedom) Flash software to overseas countries. Adding Flash is the same as on any other Linux computer, and Linux has been around for much longer than OLPC. Linux certainly wasn’t designed for this project, though it is the best available option right now.
Economist: “This columnist happens rather to like that gung-ho approach, yet also recognises that the consumer is not the nine-year-old user with infinite time on her hands, but a government bureaucrat who has to evaluate the machines relative to the other options.”
Me: As the columnist admits, this is not a fault in the project’s mission. The sole problem here is the government bureaucrat. Children do not have a problem figuring out how to use the laptop primarily on their own, exactly what OLPC hopes for.
The laptop is designed for children. It is not OLPC’s fault that some adults cannot figure out how to use it.
Economist: “Since the project launched in 2005, commercial rivals have emerged: Intel’s “Classmate” at around $250; Acer’s laptop at $350; Everex PCs with Zonbu software at around $280; Asustek Computer’s Asus Eee at under $400; and an Indian competitor, Novatium Solutions, which created a basic “NetPC” for around $80.”
Me: These are all directly inspired by the OLPC project. This is proof that the idea was sound, and when the competition realized it, they (of course) decided to take OLPC’s idea and jump on the opportunity.
Economist: “The initiative is like running the four-minute mile: no one could do it, until someone actually did it. Then many people did.”
Me: I have a theory about people wanting to be the best, which I’m considering writing about soon. …
What I mean is that we are capable of much more than what we’re doing, but until we are forced to do so (e.g. other people already achieving more), it won’t happen. We’re just too complacent and must have the role model and motivation in order to do it.
Economist: “Like many pioneers, he laid a path for others to follow.”
Me: Sounds about right.