The OLPC XO, Intel Classmate, and Asus Eee all bring important features to the table and put 1:1 computing models within reach of many more districts than ever before. However, all have merits and detriments, compromises, and baggage. The XO struggles with performance, stability, and distribution models. The Classmate is a bit vanilla and really hard to get if you aren't a Chinese or Nigerian school kid. The Asus is twice the price of either of its competitors (but you can actually buy one now).
So if I were to design the Goldilocks of UMPCs for the educational market (one that was juuuuust right), what would it look like? The Classmate, not surprisingly, would be my starting point. The XO, currently, is locked into one operating system and has a polarizing design with which older students may be less than comfortable. While you'll see that several features from the XO make their way into my Frankenstein UMPC, I wouldn't start there because it is marketed so specifically at young kids (including the GUI); I'm seeking something more usable K-12. The Eee lacks the ruggedness needed for the younger set. The Classmate is incredibly rugged and runs Windows and Linux out of the box. However, it needs some tweaks to be my ultimate ultraportable:
- Make it bigger. Not by much, but I'd love to see a laptop in this market that is big enough to be usable by high schoolers, but small enough to be lugged around by elementary kids. Even a jump to an 8.5" widescreen would make a big difference. This would be just enough to uncramp the keyboard a bit for larger hands, while keeping it very accessible (and personal, as Intel notes) for small children.
- Make it thinner. It doesn't have to be Eee thin; durability should be the primary concern. However, to maintain maximum portability with the larger footprint, especially for little kids, shaving off even a quarter inch would be signficant.
- An 8GB solid state drive would reduce dependence on network connectivity and allow more flexibility in terms of software.
- Make it convertible to a tablet/ebook. The ebook mode is a particularly cool feature on the XO and adding touch/stylus input would ease notetaking and reduce reliance on a tight keyboard.
- Ensure that students can collaborate, even in the absence of a wireless access point (as with the XO's mesh networking), but focus on 802.11a/b/g connectivity.
- Give it a speed boost. This doesn't need to be drastic as these aren't meant to be speed demons. However, kids start multitasking very quickly, so even a bump in RAM could make the difference between acceptable and sluggish performance.
- Avoid the integrated camera/webcam. Sorry, but this has the makings of a disaster. There are simply too many potential problems with kids (young and old), the Internet, and unsupervised webcams. This isn't on the current Classmate and I hope it stays off. A webcam could easily be plugged in via the USB ports under adult supervision if needed.
- Include handicapped accessibility software such as screen readers, screen zoom, speech to text, etc.
- Keep the handle, but lose the flap. The current Classmate (like the XO), integrates a handle for easy carrying. It works perfectly for little folks. However, the flap that holds the laptop closed is a thick piece of vinyl that only gets in the way. I'm definitely thinking magnetic closures.
- Offer plenty of operating systems choices: Intel is currently offering Windows, Mandriva, and Metasys and is working with Canonical to develop OS images. Adding support to roll these out as wireless thin clients and to more easily install non-certified operating systems would provide maximum flexibility to schools adopting the machines. Did someone say wireless Edubuntu?
- Keep it cheap. $200 is a magic number. I know we're a ways from hitting this pricepoint with the specifications above, but Moore's Law is our friend. It's just a matter of time.
What features would make you find a way to work these little guys into your budget?