Saturday, January 05, 2008

The OLPC XO, a LAN machine in the Internet era

We have talked about the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) computer called the XO. Sales have been slower than hoped and Intel has left the OLPC coalition because they were unwilling to stop selling their low cost Classmate PC in developing nations. An Intel sales person tried to unhook the OLPC sale to the government of Peru, and OLPC head Nicholas Negroponte compared that to McDonald's competing with the World Food Program.

But, the Classmate is proving a strong competitor to the XO in spite of its higher price. Is Intel selling it below cost to eliminate a competitor or is the Classmate a better product in the eyes of the education ministers and other government officials who are the target market. (Both are being marketed, appropriately, as ubiquitous educational infrastructure).

I've not seen the Classmate, but have an XO, which I find disappointing. The hardware is innovative and appropriate for kids and rural areas in developing nations, the environment for which it was designed, but, it is a pre-Internet machine. We have outlined the evolution of application development and delivery platforms from batch processing to the Internet, and the XO is still primarily a LAN machine in the Internet era.

It can connect to the Internet via WiFi (if you have an open access point), but the browser cannot handle mp3 and Flash files, foregoing tons of kid-oriented material. Such shortcomings may be overcome with software upgrades, but that will make a more fundamental problem apparent -- XO desktop applications like image, audio and video processing will seem lame compared to their Internet-based counterparts. You can't keep them down on the farm once they've seen PBS Kids or Jumpcut.

One can argue that most XO users will be on XO LANs in locations without Internet connectivity so they won't know what they are missing. That is true, but sad -- second rate technology for the third world.

Mr. Negroponte discussed Internet connectivity in a presentation at the MIT Emerging Technologies Conference in 2005, stating that

It is not a solved problem, but there are many people and many systems working on it. Wifi, WiMAX, GPRS, 3G, 4G, fiber, on and on and on. ... (Connectivity) is happening. It doesn't need me, it doesn't need MIT, it doesn't need the media lab.
Negroponte believed that local interest, competition and regulatory reform would take care of the connectivity issue. Unfortunately, as I have argued elsewhere, global competitiveness and regulatory change is not leading us to connectivity, but to a growing gap between developed and developing nations.

Uruguay, an OLPC customer, recognizes the need for connectivity. They will be providing connectivity to OLPC schools. I hope the XO is a better Internet access device by the time those Uruguayan children get theirs.

Where the Internet is not available, the XO seems appropriate. It is designed for the LAN. The concept of connecting to and sharing with local XOs and a local server is "baked in." The only flaw there may be speed, which I was not able to test. (A mesh network with single radios in each machine could be mighty slow).

Connectivity is beyond the control of OLPC, but I was also disappointed with aspects of the user interface. Kids who are forming a mental model of the machine and network need immediate feedback. When a kid is exploring, every click and gesture is an experiment. The cursor must always change shape when over a hot spot, every click has to be executed immediately or, if that is not possible, an "hourglass" or explanation of what is happening needs to appear, etc.

If the target market is the LAN, the XO is a reasonable alpha-test in need of rapid software upgrades. The only way to achieve that in a timely manner is for a strong open source development community to form around the machine. OLPC would do well to encourage the formation of a social network of developers and support them with Windows and Mac-based development tools.

In the (slightly) longer run, it needs to make the transition from a LAN machine to an Internet machine, and, as in Uruguay, the rollout needs to be coupled with connectivity.