The OLPC Vaporware Product Line Vs. the iPad

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 01/29/2010 - 10:11

olpc 3.0
iPad or OLPC?

Update: the EE Times has a great, similar article on the OLPC fantasy vs Apple reality.

So, the XO-2 has moved from promise to hope to scrap, and has made way for a tablet-style, iPhoneiPad-like XO-3 (Read about the 3.0 model at Forbes and Engadget, with the now-in-production 1.5 and the in-planning 1.75 XOs, both using the current design but with faster processors.

OLPC, and Nick Negroponte in particular, love to use conceptual designs to create excitement. This works great in normal, commercial development a few times. Once you miss a few targets, people react very negatively too it, even if you do finally release a product. Why do you think Apple pairs announcements with already-planned release schedules?

In designing for development, even more than commercial products, this is irresponsible. First off, this is and remains vaporware with a fictional price point, and will suffer the same fate as the now-scrapped XO-2, in a Duke Nukem Forever-style race to keep up with technology, going from an initial break-out success to a scramble to license other, shinier technology and heap on endless improvements:

It was never completed. Screenshots and video snippets would leak out every few years, each time whipping fans into a lather — and each time, the game would recede from view

Secondly, it begins to reek of the computer industry hardware upgrade treadmill instead of a socially conscious product line focused on long-term platform stability and improvement. Is an iPad-style tablet really innovative? Is it even remotely as rugged as the XO-1/1.5 model? A host of cracked and scratched iPhone screens would beg to differ. What would really be more valuable to schools world-wide who already face a choice between buying computers or hiring teachers? Is it better to focus on building attention-grabbing, flashy technology better than continuing to improve around a stable hardware platform that's rugged, low-power and with a long life-span? Constantly dangling new, cheaper, better products that will come out in 1-2 years discourages developers from continuing to work on the current platform and fragments the worldwide community of hackers and tinkerers, and undermines the work already being thrown into the current OLPC model.

Forbes explains the OLPC product goals more:

In fact, that new form factor is just the beginning of OLPC's monstrous ambitions: It aims to make its tablet PC highly durable, all plastic, waterproof, half the thickness of an iPhone and use less than a watt of power, despite an 8-gigaherz processor. The price: an unprecedented $75.

Many of OLPC's goals, to be fair, are more imagination than road map. And Negroponte has a history of overpromising. The original XO never hit its original goal of $100, (it currently sells for $172) and another touch screen upgrade to the XO that Negroponte announced in May 2008 was quietly scrapped this year based on costs. [...]

Negroponte is more interested in pressuring the industry to make cheaper, more education-focused PCs than he is in manufacturing any specific machine. "We don't necessarily need to build it," Negroponte told Forbes. "We just need to threaten to build it."

At least they have a roadmap: First up will be the XO 1.5, a $200 laptop that will be available in January 2010. By early 2011, OLPC is looking to upgrade that to the XO 1.75, which will include an 8.9-inch touchscreen for $150 or less, before finally introducing the tablet-based XO 3.0 in 2012 for less than $100.

Regardless, this is certainly not a timeframe or a manufacturing goal that encourages anyone to buy anything currently released. The 1.5 should hopefully run all the 1.0 system tools, but who knows that will be available for the 1.75 and 3.0. It's taken three years to get bugs worked out of the initial XO software, with a ton of community support and a software spin-off. And besides, why even bother with the 1.5 if the 1.75 is going to have a touch screen and be available in just another year?

The XO-2 was announced originally in late 2007 but more formally in May 2008. The XO-3 instantly became the talk of the town at the end of 2009, beating Apple to the punch in announcing a tablet. I'm guessing we'll ride the XO-3 vision through late 2010 picking up some steam from Apple's iPad. We'll then get a design update to the XO 3.5, a tablet that has extra features like roll-up flexibility and will cost only $50, using the latest epaper technology. Then in mid-2011, the XO-3.x concept gets scrapped (epaper licensing is too closed and expensive, the $50 has become $225. The XO-4 is announced, and it's a super-simple object that looks more like a paperweight than a computer. The XO-4 will have a low-power, high-contrast LED projector that you can project against any flat surface, and a motion-detection camera to capture keyboard/mousing options, somewhat like the coolest of the current smart-blackboard classroom systems. The XO-4 in turn will of course never be produced due to promising advancements in holography. In the meantime, the XO 1.9995 will be in production and actual use, using the "classic" XO-1 chassis and a more powerful mobile processor.

Boingboing ran an interesting story about travelers letting youth in India, who wanted to be computer scientists, play with their iPods and such, and later wondered if that was a good idea or not:

While we were there, we met a bunch of kids who lived with no electricity but told us that, when they grew up, they all wanted to be computer scientists. So we whipped out our cameras and iPods — the closest things we had on hand to real computers — and showed them how technology works. We figured they would enjoy it, and thought it could be a valuable experience that would stay etched in their minds as something to aspire to as they continued their studies.
Later, I found out that one of my travel mates thought what we had done was cruel. We had seduced these poor kids with luxuries they will probably never be able to afford, and sullied their pure, technology-free lives with the temptation of electronics.

If only questions like these got asked more before announcing new promises.

There's a great discussion over at OLPCNews and now also at Slashdot.

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