Monday, January 28, 2008

One Laptop Per Reviewer

A few months ago (in "One Laptop Per Child: Will It Fly?" on Oct. 22, 2007), I commented on the XO laptop designed by some MIT folks who want to bring the benefits of computer technology to millions of children in third-world countries. It's now been long enough for several reviewers to write independent judgments of the unit, and the results are interesting, to say the least.

Andrew "bunnie" Huang, a recent MIT Ph. D. graduate who writes a blog on computer hardware, thinks the mechanical design of the unit is "brilliant." He was impressed by clever little tricks such as the way the designers used the WiFi antennas to fold down and seal the ventilation holes when the unit's not being used. Along with several other reviewers, Huang liked the way the screen remains visible even in bright sunlight—an intentional design choice that makes the unit usable in outdoor settings.

Huang was less impressed with the software, which consists mainly of a custom-tailored word processing program, a web browser, and a few games. The games ran okay, but the web browser was challenged by all but the simplest websites and the keyboard, a sealed-membrane type, was tiring to use for more than a few minutes.

Since the XO is designed for children, several reviewers turned the unit over to their kids to see what would happen. This is hardly a fair test of how the device will fare in Ulan Bator or Rwanda, because the children of people who write computer reviews for a living are going to be a little more tech-savvy than your average child in a developing country. Not surprisingly, the reports from the younger set were mixed. One kid liked the "squishy" feel of the membrane keyboard, but gave up on the gizmo when he found he couldn't use some functions on one of his favorite websites. In order to get her XO to work properly, another reviewer had to face the challenges of downloading a new operating system from the OLPC website. She pointed out that following instructions like "At your root prompt, type: olpc-update (build-no) where (build-no) is the name of the build you would like" is not something that many non-techie adults will be able to handle. Kids adapt faster, but they have to have some initial guidance too.

Many of the units reviewed were pre-production prototypes, and so we should make allowances for that. Also, since each reviewer got only one unit, no one ever tried the mesh-networking capability. Mesh networking means that in a village with a dozen XO's, every laptop could in principle communicate with every other laptop as well as with the one internet hub in the village, all without fancy network setups or wires. We have to take the developers' word that this feature works as advertised.

Overall, the reviewers were enthusiastic about the genuinely good features—mainly hardware ones—and tried to be kind about the limitations, mainly in software and capabilities.

I've been sitting here racking my brain for an example of something like this in the history of technology which actually worked. What I'm trying to think of is a situation where a bunch of experts saw a need for a specially stripped-down version of something that was successful elsewhere in the context of a wealthy set of economies, and designed it and implemented it through government channels. And the only example I can come up with is the Trabant, which can hardly be termed an unqualified success.

For those who don't recognize the name (probably nearly everyone), the Trabant was the only car made in East Germany from 1957 to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had a two-cycle lawnmower-type engine, a plastic body, and could go from 0 to 60 in only 21 seconds—on good days. I remember reading in the early 1990s about a resident of East Germany who bought a "real" car and was so disgusted with his Trabant that he drove it into a dumpster and left it there. By now, the few remaining "Trabis" have become collector's items, but back when the Trabant was the only car you could buy in East Germany, demand for them outside the country was approximately zero.

Will the XO become the computer world's version of the Trabant? One reason to think not is that the XO seems to be designed better in some ways than most of today's laptops. My guess is that engineers will cherry-pick the XO's design, taking the good features and putting them into higher-end commercial models, but probably leaving the software alone. And unless some huge institution like the Department of Defense or a national government enforces the use of a particular software that is otherwise not as attractive as commercially viable products, its doom is generally sure.

All the professional computer reviewers in the world can say nice things about the XO, but that won't make it popular among its target audience: children in the poorest parts of the world. Trying to do something about poverty—economic and intellectual—is a good thing. And it's only natural for computer experts to try to use their expertise to benefit poor people with computers. But in trying to get the technology to the people who need it, the OLPC people will have to deal with matters even more complex than open operating systems and mesh networks: the root causes of poverty, unemployment, and oppression. And the realm of those matters is not to be found in hardware or software, but in the human soul.

Sources: I consulted XO reviews by Martha Mendoza of AP (reprinted in the Jan. 28, 2008 edition of the Austin American-Statesman, Jamie and Nicholas Bsales at, Kenneth Barrow at, and "bunnie" at A story on the collector's renaissance of the Trabant can be found at The One Laptop Per Child website is

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