OLPC - Thoughts Thus Far...

As I mentioned last week, we gave our oldest daughter (8 yrs next month) an OLPC XO laptop for Christmas. I've been following this project for a while and it's been interesting to see the different reactions around the web since the boxes started shipping earlier this month. Even more interesting over the last few days has been to compare some of those reactions with the reaction of our daughter.

As expected, she's been ecstatic about getting her "own" computer. The fact that it doesn't look like Mom or Dad's laptop, from either a hardware or software perspective, has only increased it's cachet in her eyes. She thinks it's pretty cool that "somebody invented a computer just for kids." When she tells people she got her own laptop for Christmas, she likes to explain that "it's a kid's laptop, but it's still a REAL computer and it even has Google!" Pretty funny that the presence of a web browser with Google makes it a "real computer" for her.

Some of the responses to this machine around the web are really interesting. It runs the gamut from "Amazing!" to "What a piece of crap..." -- but the vast majority of impressions (good and bad) are skewed because they come from an adult perspective. As an example, the review on CNET mentions an application the laptop comes with and then says "(Actually, applications are called "activities" on the XO-1. Sometimes it seems like the developers are thinking too differently.)" If you're an adult techie, I could see that these differences feel "too different." On the other hand, which word better describes the "things you can do" on a computer to a kid who's never used on -- application or activity?

On the positive side, I've read lots of adults who will use it as an e-book reader, a rugged email-on-the-go alternative, or an inexpensive way to tinker with Linux. Some of the folks over at OLPC News are as hyped about it as any Mac/Windows/Xbox/PS3 fanboy you'd ever meet.

The criticisms tend to fall into a few categories:

It's not rugged enough -- This clearly comes from someone who's not actually held or used one. This machine is very well-built and solid. It may not be a military grade Toughbook, but it will stand up to my 7 year old lugging it around just fine.

It doesn't have [Software X] -- With this one, Software X is usually something like a full-feature Firefox browser, built-in web server for development use, or a more familiar OS. Of course, each of these comes from the perspective of an adult who wants it to be more like the machine they already use. Put it in the hands of a kid, though, and these complaints go away. I've found that the OS is very intuitive and, while I wouldn't personally use it as my main machine, my daughter has had no trouble at all learning her way around and surprising me with the things she's come up with. The main complaint I'd have here is that the open-source Flash alternative (Gnash) doesn't seem to be as widely compatible as a Flash player would be. There are instructions on the OLPC wiki, though, for installing a recent build of Flash.

The keyboard is too small -- Put a kid in front of it and you'll see how perfectly-sized the keyboard is. It may be too small for an adult to use regularly, but little hands fit it just fine.

The screen is too small (and it's not a touch screen) -- The screen is small. But it provides plenty of real estate for the activities that ship with the device and it's surprisingly sharp. Hardware keys let you adjust the brightness and at the lowest setting, the backlight turns off for use outdoors. I think a touch screen would be great, especially because the panel spins around and lays down like a convertible tablet -- on the other hand, the cost of the machine right now is right around $180 or so. Adding a touch screen to it would not only increase the cost, but it would also increase the complexity of software design (to make the activities tablet-ready) and hardware design (to ensure that the device remains rugged even as the screen is regularly beat on by kids).

Personally, I've run into only two drawbacks and neither of them is insurmountable.

  1. Out of the box, the device doesn't support WPA security on wireless networks (though it does support WEP). However, I did find instructions on the OLPC wiki for adding WPA support. I followed those and it connected to our access point great. It's a one-time thing, so the device has connected just fine ever since, but the instructions do require using a terminal prompt.
  2. I would like to see it include better Flash support in the built-in browser. I've not yet tried installing the latest Adobe Flash player, so hopefully that improves things. Given how many kids web sites use Flash for activities, games, and even their entire UI, getting solid Flash support in the browser should be a priority.

Neither of these are that big a deal... especially now during the honeymoon period when my daughter is mostly using it as an electronic journal and just experimenting with the different activities. I'll follow-up later with some info on the various activities that ship with it, including one that doesn't but probably should (hint: typing tutor).