Lessons learned: Two weeks with the XO laptop

Lessons learned: Two weeks with the XO laptop

Summary: Repeat after me. The XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project is designed for kids.


Repeat after me. The XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project is designed for kids. Why bore yourself with that mantra? If you don't you may find yourself griping about something that wasn't designed for you in the first place.

That's one of the big takeaways from my two weeks with the XO (see unboxing gallery). Let's face it--I bought the XO for me (err my daughter). Sure, she'd play with it, but dear old dad's gadget lust--along with doing a good deed--drove the purchase.

So what did I learn?

1. It's my daughter's laptop. I've barely seen the thing since she's been doing non-productive things like looking at herself in the Webcam and showing her one-year old sister the toy. Checking email? Silly grown up things. The XO is about the built in drawing program, the Web cam and icons my 5 year old guinea pig grasped instantly.

2. The XO is rugged. It has been dropped, tossed into a toy box and has had its shares of fluids on it--syrup, snot etcetera. I cringe, but the kids don't.

3. It's intuitive. Sure the XO is a laptop, but it's really all about the software. Is it easy to navigate? How's the interface? Can anyone pick it up? The Fedora based operating system rarely raised any questions for my daughter. She found the write program with little effort. And aside from the music program, which frankly was over her head, she found her way around easily.

4. It's designed for kids. While I'm looking at the get started guide and a bit miffed by the lack of documentation my daughter flipped up the antennae and opened it up. Frankly, I couldn't get the thing open and was annoyed. There are a lot of features like that with the XO. The keyboard is for little fingers and that annoys fat fingered folks like me. After all, the XO was supposed to be my toy at least part of the time. My daughter was just the cover. Now I'm sounding like a whiny 5 year old.

5. WEP keys and the XO are painful. Most of the time I'd have to enter my WEP key (some Verizon assigned monstrosity) two to three times before I could get a connection on the XO. This problem was noted in the OLPC documentation. Sometimes the WEP key would just work. Most of the time WEP keys and the XO failed to get along.

6. The Internet surfing experience is decent, but... One issue is that Flash heavy sites can pose problems. Typically, you get text that tells you a module is Flash and you have to click and play. It sure would be nice if it just played. I couldn't get NickJr.com to work well.

7. The mesh networking with other XOs could be a killer app. I could see a bunch of kids swapping items through the mesh network. I'm not totally sure about the educational effects of videos being shared behind a teacher's back.

8. The XO does crash. On four separate occasions, my daughter would ask what all this text on a blank screen was. My answer: Turn it on and off and it'll be fine. That's short hand for "I have no clue what that stuff is." The XO worked itself out easily enough though.

9. Support could be an issue. What would happen if that crash didn't resolve itself? I'd go online with my other PC and check out the help section of the OLPC site. That's fine, but what if you're a kid in Africa? Support is bare bones, but I do wonder how that fact will play in emerging markets.

Other odds and ends:

  • Some folks have asked me to try out the Asus EeePC, which could be a superior device--I don't know. Meanwhile, Christopher Dawson has a series on Intel's Classmate, a strong rival. However, these comparisons miss the point. The (emerging) market is big enough for multiple players and it's not clear that students need an alpha male device (my chip is faster than yours and can do office productivity!). The kids just need something that works so let's not impose that cliche device wars storyline to the OLPC.
  • Will Windows work? Much has been made of Windows XP possibly being ported to the XO laptop. The big questions are these: Can Microsoft simplify things enough to be kid friendly? Can Redmond really boil XP down to a half dozen icons? Can Microsoft not gum up the works with too many features? My hunch: Microsoft can't do it, but we'll find out soon--limited field trials with XP on the XO are coming this month.

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Networking

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Great post, Larry...

    Thanks for the insight...I know the software is specialized for the XO, but wouldn't it be great to see it open-sourced and developed for other platforms? The interface sounds like its greatest strength.

    Chris Dawson

    Great article Larry. It seems most people commenting on/criticizing the program, including some of your colleagues, miss the points entirely that you make: OLPC is for kids, not adults. These laptops clearly are not production machines, but an introduction of computers to children. Will kids adapt to more complex computers as they grow up? Absolutely! After working in a school district for 20+ years, I was always amazed by the abilities of young minds to adapt to new technology.
    If this OLPC program reaches the right young people, I believe it will have a profound impact; naysayers notwithstanding.
    TTGIT Guy
  • Good article but

    A thoughtful article, excepting the fact that George Ou of this web site has already determined that mesh networking can't work.


    Therefore , according to Mr. Ou, your conjecture that mesh networking could be a killer app would be invalid.
    • P2P vs Internet

      I think George's criticism related to the effectiveness of mesh networking for sharing an internet connection over significant distances in an attempt to avoid higher-powered wireless transmitters. I'm inclined to agree with him - ever tried to bridge a connection with a couple of cheap wireless routers? It stinks after more than one hop.

      The peer-to-peer potential, however, really could be outstanding in a classroom/village/neighborhood if it could be controlled and monitored. Something as silly as Pictochat on the Nintendo DS engaged my kids for quite a while - seamless sharing of information between students and teachers could be very cool.

      • But you can do P2P with adhoc networking without full blown 802.11s

        P2P is most effective on the Internet, somewhat effective on a LAN/WLAN, and least effective on an adhoc small-cell client-only mesh network. This is due to the availability of content or the lack thereof. The larger a network is and the more peers there are, the more effective P2P is.

        This doesn?t rule out the usefulness of being able to transfer files between peers, but you don?t need full-blown 802.11s for that since Adhoc networking accomplishes the same thing without the overhead of the entire 802.11s stack. That stack has some huge requirements that were designed under the assumption of a lack of a centralized Access Point and was designed to replace Internet access. That design decision in my opinion isn?t worth the effort.
    • If a school room is 400m and sparse ...

      then George has a valid criticism (see illustration). As long as third world school rooms don't look like a NASA hanger, I think that mesh will work fine. George's article shows that you had better not rely upon the mesh of low power radios with small antenna to connect a community, but I don't see how that would affect kids getting together in a school or home.
    • P2P is Killer App

      I think Larry was talking about the software side of the mesh networking which allows the P2P sharing as opposed to the technical aspects of physically getting computers to talk to each other.
  • Did you download Flash?

    Hi Larry,

    Did you try downloading the Flash plugin for OLPC? Seems the OLPC folks did not pre-install the plugin for licensing reasons, but it is available from Adobe.


    - Scott
    • Thanks, I'll check out

      It seemed like it was installed. It worked in certain spots. I'll try that link when I get home.
      Larry Dignan
      • Any Word?

        Any word on whether or not the Flash plug-in fixed the problem, Larry?
  • WOW A 5-Year Old Picked Up Linux?

    And here I thought it was too difficult for those simple-minded Windows folks to figure out...but hey, if a five year old can do it, there's hope...

    You're not going to let yourself be outdone by a five-year old, are you Windows folks?
    • Another grand delusion!

      Learning to operate a limited function device that is designed for a child is a feat even you could master. It is not a statement on ease of use of Linux.
      • it is not a delusion

        OLPC has a GUI that is simple enough for children. OLPC is a full blown computer. You can program it, you can run installed applications. It isn't a limited function device in the sense of an embedded system or an iPod. So, this does show that modern software design is capable of decoupling the end user experience from the underlying OS. Of course, we should have know this since 1984 with the introduction of the original Macs.

        So it is perfectly true that you can make a Linux computer with an intuitive GUI. Linux can easily be used on cell phones & other 'limited function devices'. But OLPC is not one of these devices; it is a robust, low power laptop. How is this delusional?
        • The delusion is that because the OLPC ....

          ... is easy to use that all Linux is easy to use! This computer is a limited function device because it is dumbed down for children. The fact that you can add functionality is irrelevent because in doing so you would miss your target audience.
          • You're missing the point

            Yes, it's a dumbed-down interface. For your average computer user, that's all they need, at least to start. Once they get moving, they can add their own programs, icons, interface items, yadda yadda.

            A newbie to Windows is just as flustered as a newbie to Linux. (I know, we just bought my MIL a laptop for Christmas, never used Windows, I've been giving her lessons) But kids are not afraid to explore and find things the way adults are. Kids are not intimidated. It's not the OS that scares people away from Linux, it's the desktop experience, and if you keep it simple at first, there will be no fear.

            It's not a Linux vs Windows argument, it's an ease-of-use argument.
            big red one
          • I didn't miss the point at all!

            Look at the original post I replied to. It was that joker that missed the point. I disagree with your assessment of Windows however. My 5 and 7 yearold grandkids use Windows XP regularly.
          • Did they pick it up on their own

            without having watched someone else do it first? Or did they turn it on and just start figuring it out, like kids would do with a toy computer (like one that teaches spelling)?

            I agree that kids can learn more quickly than we give them credit for, but the question is what can they pick up on their own versus what do they need to be taught.
            Michael Kelly
          • I don't know in either case.

            I suspect that there was help on both. I'm sure that Larry's daughter had seen him use a mouse and keyboard just as I am sure my grandchildren have. If you read some of Larry's replies he states that the child has used Windows XP and OSX previously. Do you think that qualifies as help?
          • Furthermore ....

            ... how does her father configuring WEP figure in to the "she picked it up on her own" scenario?
          • No excuse for the WEP issue

            The drivers are there, the tools are there. If there are problems in configuring the wireless beyond knowing the correct SSID and password then that's a bug in the XO that needs to be fixed. And I'm sure there's a way to make it kid friendly, as long as they know their ABC's and 123's. (Heck, with WEP they could even have a WEP cracker as a part of the setup process, takes about a minute these days.)
            Michael Kelly