OLPC - Gave One, Got One

The XO Laptop Lots of tech geeks have heard of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project founded and run by Nicholas Negroponte (MIT)... but non-techies may not be familiar with it at all.

The project began in early 2005 with the original idea being to design and build a laptop that could be used as a learning tool by kids in underdeveloped parts of the world. It wouldn't be based on Windows or Mac (due to cost and complexity), needed to be rugged (for use by kids, often in remote areas), needed to provide a self-contained collaborative learning environment (remote villages have students - but not necessarily the internet), and needed to be kid-friendly (to keep their interest and enthusiasm). The hope was that a combination of design efficiencies and large orders from governments around the world would bring the cost down to $100 (US). When first announced it was often referred to as "the $100 laptop".

They've come close... the machine cost is now under $200 (US). And while the machine wasn't originally intended to be sold to consumers in the US, it's now possible to buy one. Well, actually you have to buy TWO. For $399, you can participate in the "Give 1, Get 1" program -- one machine comes to you and another machine is sent on your behalf to another part of the world. This program started in November and continues through the end of the year. Of the $399 you spend, $200 is tax deductible and T-Mobile is throwing in a year of free HotSpot access as well... that makes it really a pretty good deal.

I've followed this initiative since it was originally announced because, like most technology people, I think getting kids familiar with the tools of technology gives them a big step up in their learning. Rather than something to be intimidated by or to see as a learning curve to ascend, a computer should be seen by today's kids as a very powerful tool to accomplish their goals and reinforce the curriculum they're already studying. With it, they can write, research, collaborate, create, publish, entertain, and communicate.

I think a kids' natural curiosity provides the desire and motivation, but lots of kids (particularly outside the US) lack access. A laptop as a learning tool is no replacement for the essentials of food, clean water, and basic healthcare -- but it is worthwhile venture.

SUGAR User Interface So I placed my order on the first day of "Give 1, Get 1" and the machine arrived last week. I've spent some time playing around with it and I think my daughter (7 years) is going to love it. She'll open it tomorrow for Christmas. The "Sugar" interface is very intuitive and kid-friendly, plus there are lots of activities and things to do on the machine. She can write a journal, research via the encyclopedia, play educational games, learn LOGO (or Python if she wants to go really wild), browse the web (with some supervision and controls), read some RSS feeds, use a calculator, draw pictures, and more.

Hardware-wise, this machine is very well thought-out. There's no internal hard drive, so it can be handled in a rough and tumble way (supposedly... we'll try to discourage that). The screen is very bright and sharp, it's got a built-in handle for lugging it around, and the keyboard has a rubbery membrane over it to prevent dirt and fluids from getting inside. Opening the laptop involves flipping up two latches and then raising the lid. When up, the latches look like antennae (and, I believe, actually ARE the wireless antennae) and when they're down, they serve to protect the USB and accessory jacks.

Needless to say, I'm pretty excited about it. Our oldest often asks to use my laptop or my wife's and now she'll have her own -- but with a twist. In my opinion, this is a perfect machine for a curious 7 year old to tinker with. Sure, it's not going to be exactly like the machines she'll use later in her life - but I don't think it needs to be.

She'll have plenty of time to worry about Excel and PowerPoint.