OLPC XO – Top Ten Checklist for G1G1 Reviews

Many recipients of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Give One, Get One (G1G1) program in the US and Canada are starting to receive their XO laptops. This means people are starting to join forums and write about their experiences. That’s all terrific, but it’s important to remember that the intended 3rd world audience is very different than the lives of most of the G1G1 users. Here’s my public service attempt to create a reminder checklist for potential XO reviewers in the first world.

After the checklist, please enjoy my nomination for The Worst XO Review Ever

G1G1 XO Top Ten Pre-Review Checklist

1. You aren’t the customer. Remember who this is made for. It’s not you, or even the child you hand it to to “try out.” Check the OLPC Wiki for some of the reports from the field. Try to remember that you and most likely your child have pre-conceived notions and advantages that you don’t realize. You are like a fish trying to ignore water.

2. Keep the stage of the project in mind. Are you used to being on the bleeding edge? Do you download alpha applications and help the developers track bugs? Do you “get under the hood” of your operating system or do any programming? Have you ever participated in an open source community or even edited Wikipedia? If that’s not your typical MO, take a second look before you complain about bugs, features that haven’t been implemented, or features that you think are essential. It’s going to crash, it’s going to have bugs, and you will probably have to do some detective work to figure things out, including how to keep it up to date. Having to go to terminal mode is not a failure of the design; for best results, think of it like a new adventure.

3. It’s not a “cheap” version of your laptop. Low cost was a design driver for the XO, but not the only one. Cheap is expensive if the laptop breaks in harsh conditions.

4. The collaboration features will seem broken and lackluster. It’s like playing volleyball by yourself – don’t be surprised if the ball doesn’t jump back over the net by itself. It doesn’t mean your ball is broken or the game of volleyball is poorly designed. The answer is that it’s not really volleyball without the rest of the team. In your case, the XO may seem as useful as half a zipper without a local community of users.

5. The operating system (OS) is young. The Sugar OS is a custom design that has different goals than Mac, Windows, or even Linux. Sugar was created to support a collaborative, constructive educational environment AND 3rd world conditions AND unique hardware. Decisions were made that may seem odd to you, but potentially make a lot of sense in that context. The OS will evolve. See this Tom Hoffman post for more details.

6. Your in-home wireless network with a fat pipe Internet connection is an anomaly. Let’s not start whining that you can’t stream movies.

7. Your customer support is not a priority. OLPC created the G1G1 opportunity for a limited time with no plans to go into the business of shipping to and supporting individual American customers. If you want great tracking and toll-free support phone lines, call Amazon. It was clear from the G1G1 website that these computers came with NO TECH SUPPORT. I don’t want OLPC to waste their money hiring people to track packages, I would rather that money went to improve delivery to kids in the developing world. Of course you should get what you paid for. But look, if I pledge my local PBS station and get a coffee cup, I don’t expect perfect shipping and tracking either. You got your tax deduction and a cool invention. Enjoy them.

8. Your child is not the intended audience either. Giving the XO to your child and watching them struggle through the interface and applications does not “prove” that the laptop was poorly designed or that the constructivist philosophy of learning is a failure. The XO was built for children in a group, using it day in and day out at home and school, hopefully with adults around who can help guide them in educational pursuits. The concept of “neighborhood” is not a metaphor. Imagine kids sitting next to you, looking at what you do and saying, “hey, that’s cool, how did you do that?” The primary collaboration happens around the computer, not through the computer. It also happens because the use is expected and ubiquitous, not something squeezed in for 15 minutes on a Thursday night between homework, ballet and soccer practice. Your child’s XO experience will likely be lonely and frustrating. However, I predict a handful of kids will take to it like a duck to water. If you have one of these, say hello to your future programmer.

9. The mesh network is trying to do things you don’t need. The innovative mesh networking allows the XO computers to collaborate even when there is no Internet connection, or to share a single connection with others. In your home, it’s primarily going to suck your battery dry. As I used to say a lot when I was a programmer, “it’s a feature, not a bug!”

10. Last but not least – you and 150,000 other people did an amazing, generous thing and should be congratulated. The G1G1 program sent 150,000 laptops to homes in the US and Canada. People paid double to get an untested invention with no promise of any kind of support. As a direct result of this, 150,000 more children around the world got an XO laptop. My checklist may seem overly negative, but it’s only because I’m reacting to some early reports and anticipating others. The conversation around the XO is enhanced by all of our participation, but I hope people give it a fair shake and remember the true purpose of the XO. It’s going to take some time and some pain. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. I hope some of you get inspired to get into the guts of the thing and have some of the fun I used to have in the 70’s building computer kits and programming in octal. It’s the best!

And now, for your enjoyment, the worst XO review ever…

This review from The Economist, One Clunky Laptop Per Child would be laughable if it weren’t being read by “a global audience of senior business, political and financial decision-makers.” Surrounded by ads for first class travel, the article predictably complains about the difficulty of installing Flash to watch YouTube videos and not getting minute by minute shipping status on the package.

The “keys are too small” and don’t feel right. After using it an entire week, the writer experienced “occasional crashes.” And horror of horrors, “A discreet message sometimes flashes when the system boots up, warning of some sort of data-check error.”

The fact that XO has generated competition from other computer manufacturers who have suddenly woken up to the low cost laptop market is listed as a problem. And even stranger, the “hubris” of OLPC developers is mentioned. I guess OLPC developers aren’t supposed to be proud of their innovation or defend their decisions. What silliness.


13 Replies to “OLPC XO – Top Ten Checklist for G1G1 Reviews”

  1. Sylvia-

    Thank you for the reminder about the original intent behind this project. I was in the office of a company I consult with as they are trying to develop some software for the XO, and one of the sales people remarked, “I was planning on getting one of those for my kid, but I’m glad I didn’t…it’s like a toy version of a ‘real’ computer.” Maybe you should start a kind of buy back program for disgruntled OLPC owners and send those out to the people who really need them- call it “G1G1G1 back to those in need, not want.”

  2. You must be trolling the same forums as I have been, but I have held my tongue. Your points are right on target and I appreciate you taking the time to write and share them.

  3. Well done.

    I actually read one one review that said to XO had a touchscreen and compared it to a PC Tablet.

    It also drives me nuts when when I see comparisons between the XO and low cost laptops like the Intel Classmate. IMHO, the Classmate is just a laptop reincarnation of the IBM PC Jr.


  4. Well now I am on the fence about OLPC in general – I think it is an amazing idea and think we should have more computers in the hands of children. But the one point made in The Economist article cited that does make sense to me (and love the funny brandy holder illustration Sylvia added to her blog!) is how OLPC decided not to have an upfront specific educational focus on how the devices were to be used.

    Constructivists, and I am one, do have a plan even though casual observers and critics like to say they don’t – and I’m just not sure the plan for OLPC use in the classrooms has been solid enough. This was my question to Dr. Seymour Papert back in 2005 when I interviewed him about OLPC – and he said they were going to deal directly with the ministries of education of the countries and the countries would decide how the devices were to be used in classrooms, and not have any plans or examples for the countries.

    However, I want OLPC to be more than an experiment because when kids anywhere have laptops amazing empowering things can happen.

  5. The debate is between an educator using the computer as a tool to make a difference in the world and a large corporation trying to get some positive PR by signing on to support the effort ,while at the same time trying to undermine or at the very least a sales force that was undermining it.

    Intel is all about profits, always has been always will be. That is the nature of business. OLPC is about education and let’s not forget Dr. Negroponte is an educator! Dr. Negroponte does not stand to make any personal profit off the OLPC, while Intel and their sales force are only now looking towards the third world, because they see a untapped market to increase their profit margin.

    OLPC is motivated to create laptops as an inexpensive tool to enhance education. ITEL created the Classmate computers to make a profit. OLPC has been very clear that it is not a laptop program it is an education program. Intel’s classmate is a Laptop program.

  6. Hi Kelley,
    I hear you, but I think the XO has to exist in a world with competition. Intel is about profit and building value for their shareholders. That’s just the way it is. I think the media and public layers the soap opera histrionics a bit just because we like the entertainment value of it. Negroponte is a bully! Intel is an evil empire! I think our fascination with the personalities and intrigue reflect a general lack of ability to discuss the merits of the various computers and educational philosophies at play here.

    I don’t want to come off as an XO booster at all times, and I do see that the reality of the world is going to make the implementation harder than anyone expects. I know that Dr. Papert was permanently turned off from providing specific examples when some of his early work with Logo was turned into curriculum, rather than viewed as examples. He knew that if teachers need to “own” their own plans to make it really work.

    I’m glad you mentioned that constructivist lessons do have plans. It’s a common misconception that it’s all magic. It’s incredibly hard to provide materials to teachers that guide, but don’t script. Trust me, I know, that’s primarily my job! I think it’s also misunderstood that the OLPC plan is anti-teacher. From what I’ve seen, nothing could be further from the truth, and the reports from the pilots show how integral the teachers are. it’s just that you can’t count on teachers being there in all cases.

    Usually, the lack of quality teachers is dealt with by providing scripts and highly structured lessons so that anyone can follow them and be a “good” teacher. Of course that doesn’t work. The OLPC idea is that by giving students better peer to peer collaboration tools, they can make up this deficit in a different way. I like this intent of this and hope it works.

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

  7. Pamela,
    I agree the OLPC has to exist in real world where competition is a reality. However even corporations that compete should follow a clear set of ethical standards. After reading the New York Times piece I was saddened to see the INTEL sales force trying to talk Peru’s education minister out of an order already placed for the OCPL, when at the time INTEL was sitting on the OCLP board and had several PR releases for supporting the program in the headlines.

    “Unfortunately for Intel, the vice minister is a longtime acquaintance of Dr. Negroponte and Seymour Papert, a member of the One Laptop team and an M.I.T. professor who developed the Logo computer programming language.” (New York Times).

    I think both Dr. Negroponte and Paul S. Otellini (from INTEL) should take a moment and refocus on the target audience-the kids. The drama only serves to make countries in the developing world mistrustful. However to be fair I am not sure I would react if I were Dr. Negroponte. OLPC is after all his dream

    Is it possible to have both collaboration and competition?

  8. I was linked to this article by a posting on the OLPCnews forum. Excellant article, extremely well written. When I realized that the XO was really not meant for me, I contacted a moderator on the OLPCNews forum and sent my laptop to the moderator who have it to a developer in Nepal. See:
    My name on the forum there is “Boomer” (as in Baby Boomer) and I wrote the “interview.” It just seemed to me to make sense to get the XO in the hands of someone who could do the most good with it.

  9. Hi Sylvia,

    Thank you for so eloquently listed out the above points.

    I have to admit, I’m a guilty party. I thought to myself several times “was this worth the purchase”? But after reading your post, I’m humbly reminded of the mission Nicholoas set out to do. And you are absolutely correct. We, especially coming from the Bay Area (tech hub), forget someitmes that there’s a whole world out there and the need/wants of those less fortunate are very different.

    Thank you for writing up this post and I’m sure to come back to remind myself once in a while.

    See ya on xochat.org next time

  10. I have been to education establishments in Tajikistan where they have gotten their first computers and internet, trying to help the local community have some of the privileges we have. [Relief International Schools OnLine]

    The XO will be almost always be someone’s first computer experience…and I think in generally it will be a slow and fun one. Basically “what happens when I pick this picture (icon)?”.

    At a madrasa (I think that is what they call a school attached to a mosque), males of many ages where just left to explore PAINT, because it was helping them develop ‘mouse skills’.

    When my daughter found one of the TAM TAM apps and was making ‘animal sounds piano playing’ it was pure fun from exploration. It is like giving a kid a beaker, water , food coloring and a thermometer. They can play and be entertained, or they can do some actual, legitimate science.

  11. Actually, the only *review* that counts is from the buyers, governments that are willing to pay for the computers.

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