OLPC is a failure in one aspect, but…

Chris Blattman linked to an Alanna Shaikh post that buries the One Laptop per Child project:

It’s time to call a spade a spade. OLPC was a failure. Businessweek called it two years ago. Now, Timothy Ogden, editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action has made a compelling argument to give up on OLPC. He points out that supporting de-worming programs has more impact on child learning than the OLPC laptops.  The laptops were designed without end-user input, they cost too much both to produce and to run, and they’re now being outcompeted by commercial laptops. Only about a million OLPCs have shipped so far.

Meanwhile, a commenter, Gansler, notes Shaikh’s rhetorical tendency:

Alanna Shaikh and I worked together. I found then, as I do now, that her rhetoric is a bit thick, a bit black and white – all is doom and gloom (though sometimes it’s awesome and bright). I find her “Dream is Over” comment very much in line with that.

While I do consider the OLPC laptop project itself rather a failure — its relentless pursuit of volume, its alienation of the teaching profession (the two are related, in a chicken-and-egg way: OLPC has to sell in spades to achieve low per-unit price; third-world educational budgets are limited; ergo some money has to be diverted from traditional, human-resource-heavy teaching approaches. Rather unethical at the very least, using thirld world students and teachers as human lab rats.

Whether it would have worked better had it targeted educational niches in the developed world — home-schooled kids, isolated rural kids wanting to collaborate with others across geographical distances, or as a supplement in general for public school education, since after all, studies /do/ show that a high proportion of US teachers are not qualified to teach their subject — is an exercise is uchronia. We’d simply never know. We do know certain things, though:

  • OLPC single-handedly removes the linkage between ultra-portability and ruggedness on one hand, and price on the other. Remember the pre-netbook days of super-expensive ultra-portables? Intel responded by introducing the Classmate, which begat the netbook, and the rest is history.
  • The OLPC user interface, Sugar, lives on in Sugar on a Stick. It’s bootable from a USB stick, can be installed, and runs on commodity hardware which are aplenty even in underdeveloped countries.
  • The amazing LCD from OLPC is being commercialized by Pixel Qi, and is coming to a laptop near you within months. Obligatory plug: I maintain a Facebook group that (attempts to) keep track of Pixel Qi announcements. Some of the videos are just simply delicious.

So I guess this is turning into a eulogy. OLPC has failures in abundance, but it is a radical, category-creating product. Negroponte could have managed it better, but he should still be able to take pride of what the project managed to accomplish. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, after all.

For those of you steeped in Judeo-Christian history, think of OLPC as the John the Baptist to netbooks’ Christ: loud, insistent, un-PC, and martyred, but a success nonetheless.


Why you should conditionally promise to buy the upcoming Nokia N810 tablet

Nokia N810 tablet

  • It looks gorgeous
  • It runs Linux, and showcases what can be done with more vertical integration
  • Nokia has been improving their interaction with the developer community
  • Video camera and Skype (no Skype video support yet, though)
  • Rhapsody subscription service
  • New: Now with GPS, spacious internal storage, and sliding keyboard built-in!
  • New: More video codecs, Flash 9, Mozilla-based browser

So commercial software providers (Skype, Real Networks) will provide Linux ports if they judge that the userbase is big enough. Which is good news.

The same thing applies to Nokia itself, naturally, and sadly in this case, they do not think there is demand for Ogg Vorbis playback.

So if, like me, you find the product attractive, but have a personal collection of Ogg Vorbis files (or FLAC, which transcodes seamlessly to Vorbis), then this is what you can do:

  • E-mail Nokia about it
  • Inform outlets that stock the tablet (e.g. Best Buy, CompUSA)
  • Sign this pledge and pass it around

All the software for the new device (minus GPS — though perhaps it’s the same software that comes with the GPS kit for N800? Oh, and the ambient light sensor) will run on the N800, so holding back won’t be that painful.

Of Nokia and Apple: it must be Tuesday…

The Tuesday after E3 Expo, we get not one but two much-awaited announcements. Nokia finally demonstrated the OS 2006 upgrade for the Nokia 770 tablet, and Apple came out with the MacBook (sorry, Mac OS Rumors).

Alas, the Nokia announcement is still vaporware (I’d happily beta test the new firmware, since the latest update actually broke timezone support, and the full-screen virtual keyboard sounds like a nice improvement over the half-sized version one has to carefully peck with a stylus right now). And to make matter worse my tablet’s wireless actually died yesterday! Thankfully it’s still under warranty, and Nokia didn’t actually announce a hardware upgrade, as was speculated.

The Apple announcement, on the other hand, is welcome. There are concerns about the integrated video (can’t be worse than the also-integrated, 700-fps-in-glxgears ATi in my HP right now), and the price premium charged for the black case, but so far it’s looking good. I’ll let the early adopters work out all the issues with this and get the next model with OS X 10.5 and 64-bit Merom CPUs..

Nokia 770

My Nokia 770, pre-ordered on Nov 14th, finally arrived this Thursday, shipping after exactly one month (to FedEx’s credit, the 3-day shipping ended up taking 1 day). I had an exam in the morning and a paper due later that day, so it wasn’t until Friday that I laid my hand on it.

First impression? It’s smaller than expected – about the same dimension as a PDA, rotated 90° and stretched slightly along the width. And the screen is crystal-sharp!

On the downside, application load times are on the sluggish side, and the OOM killer kicks in a bit too often, wspecially when browsing Flash-heavy sites.

Some third-party applications are on the unstable side – the WebCore-based mini browser crashes whenever one types into a password field; the ScummVM game Beneath a Steel Sky does not display an icon in the task bar, making it impossible to kill without first installing X Terminal. Hail killall!

Need to set up my Linux box for Maemo development over the break, so I could start porting Quarry. Chess is great, but sometimes one feels like Go or Reversi…

This post typed on a 770