Wednesday, April 9, 2008

My love affair with the OLPC's XO laptop

I have to admit I’ve fallen in love. (Sorry ladies, it's not that kind of love: I’m as constant as the Northern Star with respect to Susana.) My love affair involves a laptop. It happens so infrequently because there have been so few great breakthroughs in personal computing technology since I hauled around the Compaq Luggable in 1987.

I'm not saying that because I’m a curmudgeon; I can fall in love with technology. To prove that point, let me admit that I’m a little bit giddy while writing this.

Here’s why: For the last week I've been using the “$100 laptop” by the folks at the One Laptop Per Child foundation (OLPC). OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte gave one to Susana and me. Nicholas invested in MessageMachines, and I greatly admired him as an entrepreneur and an IT intellectual before he gave me the XO.

The XO laptop -- it's called the XO because if you turn the logo 90 degrees, it looks like a child -- runs on Linux with a wide-ranging suite of open source applications for basic laptop users. The combination of an open source operating system and applications is the best means yet of lowering the total cost of ownership, which is open source software's (OSS) primary consumer benefit. Then there's the built-in wireless connectivity that helps bridge the digital divide by giving children worldwide access to a network-ready laptop. This fact alone makes Negroponte worthy of a Nobel Prize.

What's interesting is that this OSS-based laptop will absolutely lead to proprietary software and hardware sales. While the XO doesn't come preinstalled with Microsoft XP or Vista, children and their teachers will need more sophisticated software applications, networking and hardware capabilities over time, so they'll graduate to higher-end hardware. There’s no CD/DVD drive in the XO at all, for example, and no hard drive and only a 7.5-inch screen. As the children grow up, they'll naturally migrate to proprietary products, which are fine with me. To adapt a phrase from Richard Stallman, I believe “the future is hybrid,” as opposed to purely open.

More on the XO's openness: I discovered a button located on the keyboard that allows children to view the source code (what XO refers to as the “programming”) behind certain applications. The XO laptop’s highly accessible and flexible user-interface, called Sugar, also promotes sharing and learning. This makes the XO a true OSS machine, from its philosophical underpinnings all the way through its uncomplicated functional capabilities available with one touch of a keyboard button.

My favorite feature is The Neighborhood, which provides, to quote the documentation, a

View of all the connected XO laptops within a child’s community, and what activities they are sharing. Each child is represented by a different color. If there is a shared document or activity being collaborated on by a number of children, it will show up within this view.

The Neighborhood provides an easy-to-use view of the network meshwork in the neighborhood, but it also helps facilitate interactions with immediate “friends” and the building of a community. When combined with The Friends, The Home, The Activity views and Browse, XO provides all the elementary functionality of a desktop plus a means of stepping up to more advanced applications, such as SynthLab a mini-lab for acoustic- and electronic-circuit construction.

For an adult, it takes a short time to adjust to XO's looks. It has a shiny green-and-white plastic outer cover, a handle and two leaf-like antennas. It looks like DreamWorks went out to create Shrek’s personal laptop based on a Fisher-Price design.

The XO is spill-proof, rainproof, dustproof and ruggedized for impacts due to being dropped. There is no fan on this little wonder, it’s as silent as a Caribbean wind gust and it weighs just 3.2 pounds. It gets six hours of heavy activity or 24 hours of reading battery life from one charge. (The battery is made of innovative lithium ferro-phosphate, costing $10 to replace and is good for 2,000 charges, compared to 500 for a regular laptop battery.) It has a nifty built-in video camera and a screen that rotates into a tablet configuration. It also has a microphone, memory card slot, gamepad controllers and graphics tablet. The XO is the complete personal computing laptop for children and adults.

There's just so much to love about the XO laptop. I look forward to seeing how it will give new hope to the children of the developing world. In 10, 20 or 30 years, I believe we'll witness a new generation of IT leaders who are getting their start even now on these small green-and-white machines.

I really hope the Nobel Foundation is paying attention.


Christopher Herot said...

I agree the XO packs a lot of innovative features. The real effect will probably be unleashing the intelligence of all the people around the world with high IQs but (until now) limited exposure to the outside world.

A question for you: will you use the XO in your daily life, or does that still require Windows or OS X?

Doug Levin said...

Today, I need XL, Word and PowerPoint for work but my heart belongs to XO otherwise.

Gopi said...

I agree in most parts but have my own reservations on its user interface and usability.
I have one of this and tried to do a little experiment with my 3yr old. Agreed 3yrs may sound too young to play with computers. But considering that my cousin's 3yr old can login on his own with his name as password and click on a browser.. I don't think age is a limit anymore.
Anyway, I tried to get my son interested and it was too slow and not very friendly for the 3yr old.
I almost felt he will start to hate computers if i let him keep it and get annoyed when nothing changed when he pressed a button.
On the positive side he did like the camera and the alphabets appearing after i opened the notepad app.
I'll try again next year..hopefully future models would get faster