Hands on the $100 Laptop

Unfortunately I am not so lucky. That lucky person that got his hands on one is Paul Stamatiou. Ah what I would have to give to own one or even the experience of playing around with one. I have written a lot on my great interests of this little world changing product, its launch here and about one of its sponsors here, unfortunately after reading the write up, I came away with mixed feelings of this product’s supposed noble purpose.
Before we go on, here are some of the more interesting images sourced from Paul’s site (Thanks paul!):
Figure 01: The only children’s program that comes pre-loaded, a music making machine.

Figure 02: A product with hinge, wait for kids are you sure???

Figure 03: Nice size for kids, but sketching on that large track pad? For little ones developing their hand eye coordination?

Figure 04: Networking layout plan for other OLPCs in the local area.

Now that we got the eye candy out of the way we can discuss the serious stuff, which are the strategies and thinking behind this product.
1) Its a Closed System.
Wait a minute. Its Linux based operating system, but it’s designed to be a “close system”? I can see the potential security issues solved, but this sounds to me like my iPhone vs. Symbian and open/closed operating system discussion all over again.
I’ll probably spare you dear reader and skip over the gory details, but consider this, together with Apple’s iPhone, is this a sign that the potentially significant products of our near future are all somewhat focused products? As my design blogger friend csven lamented before “it’s the dreaded internet appliance all over again”.
Are convergent products dead, and products that focused to a few specific tasks the key to our future consumer environment? Have our consumers signaled or realized that they prefer simplicity and are happy carrying a bag of many products? But hey it can be argued that the OLPC and the iPhone do actually do a few thing, then perhaps its not multiple convergence but more of a situation of “logical convergence”? Think about that?

2) Its not sold or open to the general public.
What’s worst if a unit falls into the wrong hands, it apparently can be remotely disabled should that unit be detected online. Does the thought of this even remotely worry you about privacy? Anyway I digress.
Let’s for a moment take a step back from this discussion and objectively look the OLPC’s strategy of ensuring all children, especially from the poorer 3rd world nations, will have access to computers. So with such a noble cause I find this limitation very strange.
Sure the potential volumes of the OLPC are potentially in the stratosphere, as the population of the developing countries far surpasses that of the developed countries. But why limit it to only the 3rd world developing countries? Would making it a general release product only increase the volumes even more and allowing a greater chance of hitting that elusive $100 dollar target price? Why waste money then policing the product and potential black market activities, when the advantages of releasing it to the general public will curb such issues. Not to mentioned ability to increase awareness to the general public of the plight of the 3rd world countries?
Think about it, why not even sell it to the general public for double the price and thus have the ability to give away or donate a free set to the needy? Heck I would not mind paying $400 for this product, if I get to donate 3 free sets to a needy cause?
Finally this has a larger social issue that just floats under the radar. Its a kind of a reverse of the usual “those that have and those that have not” social discussion. I think situation needs further discussion that far surpasses the scope of this one we are having here.

3) OLPC is a product for kids.
I have a great connection with this issue, particularly because I have fatherly duties these days. As this product seems to operate as a close operating system, I find it defeats the purposes of a product targeted to children.
Many young children learn while they play, and the best way to learn and explore is to play in a free and unconstrained manner. That’s why toys like Lego or Mr. Potato Head are so popular and everlasting with children, and why designing toys is such an extremely difficult task. If you look at the list of included software and lack of flexibility in installing programs the child needs, the interfacing of this product don’t seem to be well considered. I’m sure we can argue that this is not a toy. But at that young age, which this product is targeted to, would they not treat objects as toys anyway? Otherwise how will we engage the child to use this product? Thus I think with this reasoning I do think they got the form factor and color correct but not the software interface.
You can also argue that the product connects to the Internet, and thus by default flexible as the internet is endless. However this results in a whole host of other problems. How would parents control what the child sees or downloads on the internet? What about online chats? If the product goes thru an OLPC controlled server, portal or RSS feed, who decides on the content of that portal? Information of these aspects of the OLPC internet applications is currently sketchy at best.
If you look at the hardware specifications this product has, it looks even more unconsidered for children. I would have expected a touch screen display for drawing and navigating tactilely. But what do we have instead is a small a track area where children are expected to draw. (See figure 3) That’s fine for adults as it’s basically a finger on a large track pad, but I worry with the little ones where their hand/eye coordination still being developed? Also it seems that you can use a stylus on this large track pad, but then is this not similar to the disassociated drawing skill designers need to develop when working with a PC and a drawing tablet? Perhaps I’m biased but this would have been an ideal situation for a “Magna-doodle” or “Etch-a-Sketch” type functionality to be added to this product.
Finally I just shudder at the thought of that multi-directional hinge. I’m sure that they could build it pretty strong, but kids do get up to amazing things with their surroundings, and I really do see this hinge snapping like a twig as an 8yr old walks thru the bush back home.
Please note, even though I am critical of this product at this stage, I am in no way demeaning the super human effort that all parties involved undertook in creating it as its very easy for me to be an at arms length chair spectator. However the cynical side of me can’t help thinking of what the advantages of the software and internet setup would give to one of this project’s biggest sponsors.
Of cause some of this hardware issues could be due to the compromises of component costing, but I think the compromises need to be tempered and managed thru the eyes of the primary user which is the child.

  • Wayan

    April 14, 2007 at 4:11 am Reply

    I couldn’t agree with you more on some of your concerns and your overall hope it succeeds. OLPC does seem to be a “We’re MIT, trust us” program, which if left to define the implementation, will give it great trouble in the field.

  • Design Translator

    April 14, 2007 at 8:42 am Reply

    Hi Wayan,
    Thanks for stopping by. I don’t blame them. MIT has always believed that they should only focused on technology, and are never shy about it. They would then work closely with “sponsors” and give them un-exclusive rights to their patents.
    This way the companies involved are responsible for realizing and commercializing the technology and turn it into products. So I was surprised that they took the plunge and went into product development.
    Also from what I understood there were many companies involved in the product design and development. IDEO for one if memory serves. But the implementation problems, for a product of such magnitude mean its likely design by committee.

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    June 1, 2009 at 12:52 am Reply

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