Friday, January 11, 2008

OLPC XO 1 and My Lunch Box

A week ago we received in a small box our XO laptop, the product of the radical One Laptop Per Child--OLPC--program. It is in a rugged white box with green and orange detailing and a built in handle that most resembles a flattened out plastic version of the metal lunch box I took to my first first grade class until my first first grade teacher broke it in a fit of pique. That was about the third day of class. I had seen right off that she was flat boring and so carried my Burgess Animal Book to school that day and sat looking at the photographs while she yammered on about some inanity. I noted that she was walking around the room while talking, but ignored her to focus on a moose. Big mistake.Without warning she was towering over my desk and slamming the lid of my lunch box closed with such violence that the lid separated from the rest of the lunch box. Without a word or a tear, I closed fastened the broken lid as best I could and walked out of the class, not to return.

OLPC's XO computer is like that, an act of defiance and rebellion. Imagine the chutzpah of a university professor daring to create a $100 laptop for the masses, one that draws minimal power, has great wireless connectivity, free software, and is easy to recharge through a variety of human and alternative energy means and then daring to try to distribute the thing to school kids around the world. Nicholas Negroponte and his colleagues at MIT missed their price point and had to enlist American consumers to subsidize the first batch of machines through a buy one for someone else, get one for yourself program. The world's nations, on the other hand, continue to be slow to respond, not least because they know how subversive a computer connected to the world with built in camera and microphone and full blogging capabilities--not to mention an ability to work off the power grid, often a state or quasi-state utility. Then, too, the mainstream computer manufacturers have awakened to the markets in the developing world for lowcost computers and are working hard to undercut OLPC. As Negroponte told the audience at TED in February 2006, some 60% of the cost of a laptop goes to overhead and sales.

So what happens to the machine--how good is it. The unsigned Tech View in the January 4, 2008, Economist, maligns the XO for what it is [not]: that it came in above $100; that the touch pad is squirrelly--it is, but in defiance of the documentation, my portable mouse works quite well--that loading Flashplayer required the user to go into Terminal and enter a long url--oh my!--and that the keys were small--true but well spaced for two-handed, one-finger typing--I prefer my middle finger for that,despite or maybe because it is my longest and largest. Oh, it crashes periodically--as if Windows doesn't. I loaded Flashplayer more easily on the XO than on my Windows XP Professional and Home editions. I have some experience with Linux and cut my computer teeth on DOS commands, and so I don't find this feature--common to all Linux systems--onerous. Besides, the kids learn their way around computers. I would think Tech View could say at least as much.

Most hardware hackers appear to recognize and praise the machine for what it is--a sturdy, efficient ultra-portable with outstanding wireless connectivity. And the software is a version of Red Hat Fedora called Sugar. It's clever and effcient, if slow. As to the touch pad--that needs fixing, but for now the mouse works well enough--aa MS laptop wireless mouse at that--I use it all the time, anyway, because of Parkinson's disease. For 'buy one, get one' participants there is an added bonus--one-year free access to T-Mobile Hotspots from any of your computers.

As I said, the big players missed on this one and now they are trying to catch up the only way they know how--by destroying the competition. That's traditional capitalism, and it has considerable resources aat its disposal, far more than the Quixotic quest of OLPC. But I like Don Quixote, and I'm glad OLPC is jousting at the windmills of power.

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