The XO Files: I Want to Believe

This entry is the beginning of a four part series, "The XO Files: I Want to Believe in the XO" Read Part I here, then Part II, The New 4PC Market, and its Failings, Part III: Re-imagining the OLPC Distribution, and Part IV: New Years Resolutions for 1CC.

The XO Files: I Want To Believe
The XO Files: I Want To Believe

Reading WorldChanging's "editorial retrospective" by Ethan Zuckerman on the article on the OLPC XO he posted in June, 2006 really made me wish that the project had, well, worked out better. Articles like Ethan's remind me of the good work and ideals that have gone into the OLPC XO, which both refreshes me and frustrates me further. This post begins a four-part series on the One Laptop Per Child project, some of the key problems it has faced, and the amazing promise that it still holds for international development and global education.

I Want To Believe: Part I: Laptop project or education project?

The XO, despite anything else, remains an amazing chunk of technology and an exemplary model of innovation for change. Ethan Zuckerman focused on the amazing feats of engineering possible with a bit of foresight, some tight cost and design constraints, and some really smart people:
It's got bunny ears - antenni for the 802.11s wireless radios, which are designed to self-assemble meshes with other laptops. The ears fold down to cover the USB, power and mic ports, an excellent design for the sorts of dusty environments I can imagine the device used in. [...] Ever since Nicholas outlined the engineering challenges of building a good hinge, I've been fascinated by the different ways people attach screens to laptops. [...] The machine still needs to be miserly with power to be usable as a human-charged device. And this is where the team have worked some serious magic. [...] The machine draws [0.5 watts ] in ebook mode, using a black and white display. The display [...] can store a black and white image and display it without any assistance from the CPU, again allowing the CPU to shut down and save power.

Technology paired with idealism does not a development project make; there is a huge gap between creating and pushing out a technology and creating a vibrant, community-led, sustainable change on the ground. This canyon between Boston and the Global South is the leitmotif of the many obstacles the OLPC project has faced. With his nigh-trademark prescience, Ethan Zuckerman pointed out an aspect of this disconnect that has proven to be a serious problem in the current "marketing" of the machine -- and why Windows XP is now the default OS, driving away many of the early XO software developers:
Getting across the distinction that this is a children's laptop, not just a cheap laptop, is a surprisingly difficult task. When I last wrote about the laptop on Worldchanging, a number of commenters mentioned that they'd like one of the computers as a backup or travel computer - I suspect they might feel differently after playing with one of the current prototypes.

The difficulty of course is that the XO is a great travel laptop; it's lightweight to make your shoulders happy, rugged enough to toss in your daypack for a hike, the sun-readable screen means you can use it outdoors, the SD card slot makes it a great way to review digital camera photos, the antennae can pick up even a faint wifi signal, and the USB slots and headphone jack make a handy movie-viewing box. I've even seen people use it as a VOIP/SIP phone to make low-cost international calls. The low-power possibilities (especially if you deactivate wifi) means it will last for hours on one charge, and can be topped up using a portable solar cell.

Without diving further into the amazing technology (which we'll discuss in Part II), you can see how hard it is to "sell" the XO laptop without gushing about the amazing laptop features it sports "under the hood". The failure to drive home that the XO is a children's educational device, not a laptop, is why people ask questions like "Does it run MS Office?"

"When I went to Egypt for the first time, I met separately with the minister of communications, minister of education, minister of science and technology, and the prime minister, and each one of them, within the first three sentences, said, 'Can you run Windows?'" Negroponte says. [Technology Review, May 2008, emphasis added]

Would you ask if a Speak-n-Spell ran Windows? No, but the Speak-n-Spell was still a reasonably powerful "computer" in many ways, as Wikipedia reminds us: "The Speak & Spell used the first single-chip voice synthesizer, the TI TMS5100, which utilized a 10th-order linear predictive coding (LPC) model and the electronic DSP logic," and it even was able to interface with early desktop computers.


Speak-n-Spell: The 1980s OLPC XO?
The Speak-n-Spell was branded, promoted and purposed solely for early childhood education - not business (or communication with alien races, but that's why it's a good platform). The OLPC's XO Laptop is branded and purposed primarily for education, but the "$100 Laptop" moniker, and every branding step that focused people's attention on the fact that this thing was a laptop, created unrealistic and damaging expectations to the project goals. If you call it a laptop, even a children's laptop, presumptions on what it does and how it works are made. The XO is a collection of path-breaking technology that shouldn't be constrained by the concepts of a "laptop."

But that's how the OLPC Foundation treated it, talked about it, and it's how the world saw it. Despite the repeated (but now defunct) mantra by the Foundation that it was an education project, not a laptop project, their actions focused on the engineering and distribution of the technology, and not on the custom, per-country curricula integration and teacher training that an educational project would need. It should have been an education project, but in design, execution, and promotion, was a technology project, and now it must compete, not as a selfless work to support global education, but as a low-cost laptop in an increasingly crowded market that it itself helped to create, which will be the topic of the next entry.