Armchair Quarterbacking the OLPC

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 27, 2009

Hindsight, it is said, is always 20/20. The OLPC has traveled a turbulent path for quite some time, with its latest stumble coming in the form of drastic staff and development cuts.

Four years on, many are analyzing the choices the OLPC made, and some contend it was a bad idea all around.

I do not own an XO laptop, nor have I ever used one. I can not speak firsthand about responsiveness, or wireless connectivity issues, although I have heard others had similar issues as Walrus Magazine's Jon Evans had with his XO.

Was the OLPC project a "misguided idea," as the Telegraph's Alex Singleton suggests? I don't think so. Badly implemented, perhaps. I might even venture to say for what it was meant to be, it fell short. It was also the happy accident that brought inexpensive, simple-yet-functional netbooks to the world.

I believe Evans makes a reasonable point about the project's ambitions -- it was unleashing new concepts on top of new concepts, and this is difficult for any organization, non-profit or commercial, regardless of budget and number of staff involved. So here comes the idea of a low-cost laptop with specialized power sources (crank, solar, battery or plugs), an LCD optimized for use in natural sunlight, and the parts should be -- must be --fairly user-serviceable should things break. Because it's low-cost and easier on hardware resources, an older, modified version of Fedora is taken onboard and coupled with Sugar, a desktop designed for young children.

It was a tall order, and at least in this form, had some issues. Netbooks, with customizations in power sources, localized versions of operating systems and operating systems that consider the age of the user (is Edubuntu appropriate, or something more "adult"?) can fill the need as well as the XO.

And this is where I disagree with Evans and Singleton. There is indeed a need for this type of hardware (and software). Smartphones simply aren't laptops (or netbooks). The purpose of the low-cost, open laptop isn't just connectivity. And as someone with a degree in library science, I can say (sadly, but without reservation) I would rather have my school library outfitted with netbooks than paper books, especially in a developing country. Books are surprisingly expensive, and though very valuable, both aid organizations and those receiving aid are likely to get far more for the investment out of a netbook than a set of encyclopedias or a smartphone. It's not just connectivity, and it's not only reading.

Even if the OLPC failed with the XO, it has to be called a success in introducing a new market for low-cost laptops, and in turn, introducing a whole new audience to open source software.