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Monday, April 16, 2007

The OLPC reviews review - the alternative standpoint

Dear reader,

I'd like to review all sorts of reviews that have appeared lately online.
I believe, that almost all of them are missing the point.

All these reviews show, or assess, what kind of computer system the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) is and how does it compare to other [known] computer systems.

So, the following components are being compared:

  1. Hardware specs (specifications)
  2. GUI (Graphical User Interface)
  3. Applications choices
So, lets go over those components:

1. Hardware specs.

It is well known, that OLPC is nowhere in top 500 HPC systems list. But such a list is not its purpose. Say, if you build the system, and you require it to do the following:
  • Surf the web
  • Chat with other people (either text, voice or video)
  • Write docs
  • Read books/other electronic material (and especially in a direct light environment)
  • Have a battery life as prolonged as possible
  • Lightweight
  • Have an alternative power source (alternative to standard power outlet which can be found in most homes in developed countries).
So, what specs would you need then? Do you need a computer system, that would be able to land a man on moon for that? (In fact, humankind has such systems for a long long time, and many of today's calculators are capable of necessary calculations. So this would be not really such a good of an example).

Well, considering that all aforementioned tasks are not computing-intensive (except maybe video/chat, which is not that intensive load on the system after all), you won't have to have state of the art machine. I remember being a student in late 90' and being able to surf the net, listen to music, read the books, write lab reports and chat on ICQ with my friends. And that was on Cyrix 120 MHz machine, with 500MB hard drive and lousy 1MB Cirrus Logic VGA chip.

And you know what? Yes, it was slow. I had my kernel (I used Red Hat 5.2 then) compiling in 48 minutes. Compare that to two minutes 20 seconds on today's computers. But still, it did everything I wanted it to do. And did it ok.

I even played really good games on it (at least I think they were good).

So, considering today's applications for surfing, chat, music and reading are not much different (even sometimes even more efficient than those 10 years ago), I believe 300Mhz machine would be up to the task.

2. GUI

Hm, If I were to choose my favorite complain, this would be it.

Many articles complain, how not native this interface to people or even seasoned computer users. The common misconception as I understand it, is the assumption, that OLPC is the first computer that child will have, and it should teach a kid to use a computer.


First and foremost, it is not about teaching children to work with a computer. It is about teaching.
It means, that OLPC and especially its GUI should not be directly compared to any other computer system.

Compare it to other education materials instead.
That's what main issue is all about. These computers is education tool. They will be delivered instead of schoolbooks.

Now imagine the potential this thing has.

Reading books (huh, well, any book has this feature, right?)
Editing book which is allowed to be edited.
Writing you school work, and allowing a teacher to test it.
Chat with friends.
Surf the web.
Compose music
Imagine and do your own.

So, I think, if the child is about to learn something new and exciting - she will. And all you grownups computer whiz-es, who can't figure out the interface -thats not the problem for them. For them its a game.

3. Applications

So, as much as what I said about GUI, I have to say about applications chosen.

First, let me tell you about an OS chosen.

It is Linux OS, based on Fedora Core (GNU/Linux for you zealots). If someone asks why wasn't Windows/Apple OS X chosen - it is very simple. It is not about money. It is not about technology (almost). Its not about politics.

It's about choice.

When you choose a Linux to build your product upon, you have the fullest control possible over final product, both technologically speaking and IP-(intellectual property) speaking. I mean, it is so easy to develop product, when you can change every bit of it for your liking. It is not possible with Windows/OS X.

Besides, technology-wise, the improvements made to different subsystems which comprise the standard distributions (such as kernel, X, Gnome, etc) are to benefit us all.

Second, the applications.

If one would review again the list of requirement, she would understand, that apps she needs are as follows:
  • IM (including text, voice and video)
  • Browser
  • Book reader (supporting standard formats, such as PDF/RTF/text)
  • Games
  • Music player
  • Document writer
So - chat application (with text, voice and video), browser based on xulrunner, reader (evince), games, music app and doc writer (abiword) - that is actually everything required for this work.

There are more.

But no scientific calculator (though it might be useful for older than 7 y.o kids). No shooter games.
Just tetris :-)

Now, to the rest of things.

  • I like that OLPC has a screen, that can be read at direct sunlight. If it's for reading books, what else would you need?
  • I like that OLPC will have longer work time than most other laptops out there.
  • I like that it can be put to sleep in few seconds. I like that it can be awaken in few seconds.
  • I like that it weights about 1.5kg
  • I like that it has an alternative power source. It means that I'd never have to worry about power outlets around me.
So, all those comparing OLPC to conventional computer systems, are not comparing it to the comparable one. They expect OLPC to behave like a conventional computer system, and when it fails to comply they say all these negative things, such as its "stupid" or "unnecessary" or "why, oh God, you didn't put full fledged system on this laptop?".

All this because comparisons are basically flawed. They all compare OLPC to something it is not really made to be comparable with. One should try and compare it to something better for reaching that goal.

Try a printed book.


Cornelius said...

I liked your review, good points!

tante said...

Good review, my thoughts can be found here

Deacon Paul said...

Excellent viewpoint. Most of the processing power on modern Windows and OSX systems is providing eye-candy or 3d games. Another strength of Linux is that it uses X as the graphics system which was designed to work with just a couple of MIPS of processing power. This PC is still 10x the power of the machines we were putting into Dealing Rooms 20 years ago.

Jim said...

The current OLPC resume time is now 160 milli-seconds. Yes, you read that right....

Our target is to get to the limitations of the hardware, which is 63 milliseconds.

The screen does not visibly change when suspending or resuming the system (other than blinking stuff stopping).

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU! I'm getting so sick of everyone bashing the OLPC because it's not a standard computer. This needed to be said.

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