$400 XOs and recessions

The OLPC XO goes on sale through Amazon Monday via a redux of their Give One Get One (G1G1) program that turned into such a debacle last year.It's no secret that, despite my utter willingness to give props to OLPC for spurring an entire market of netbooks both for education and consumers, I'm not a fan of the program itself.

The OLPC XO goes on sale through Amazon Monday via a redux of their Give One Get One (G1G1) program that turned into such a debacle last year.

It's no secret that, despite my utter willingness to give props to OLPC for spurring an entire market of netbooks both for education and consumers, I'm not a fan of the program itself. I think that the laptop has a few selling points, most notably its ruggedized design and its book reader, but the hardware is becomingly dated very quickly. With the introduction of the Intel Atom processor, a a 433 MHz clockspeed just sounds silly, no matter how little power it uses. In fact, although a new generation of OLPC laptop is due in 2010, the XO that will be available via Amazon has not been updated since the machine was first launched.

For those of you not familiar with OLPC's G1G1 program, the idea is to purchase two OLPC XOs; one goes to you and the other goes to a child in a developing country. According to ComputerWorld,

Amazon will begin taking orders for the XO laptops on Monday. The devices will be shipped within 30-days in the U.S. or longer for people ordering from the U.K. or other parts of the world.

All orders from outside the U.S. will be taken through Amazon's U.K. Web site and will be delivered in the first quarter of next year or later, OLPC said in a statement.

This sounds incredibly noble and tax deductible, but for consumers, what this comes down to is spending $400 on a really slow laptop for your kid. This same laptop has a history of hardware failures (and no word that it will carry anything more than last-year's 30-day warranty) and is designed for kids who are completely computer-naive; I'm struggling to envision my 6-year old being satisfied with the hardware or software stack, let alone any of my older kids. 1GB of storage (part of which is consumed with the operating system and application software) won't get you very far, nor will a quarter gig of RAM. This means no OpenOffice unless you replace the interface with Xfce (not exactly good times for the typical consumer); sure, the Sugar interface is really slick, but kids in developed countries need a machine that can integrate into existing ecosystems.

Then, of course, there's our economy. Japan announced that it is officially in recession, and, although the US doesn't make the technical definition of a recession yet, it's pretty clear that our economy is "in crisis." Circuit City isn't even selling enough electronics to avoid Chapter 11. I simply can't see any justification for spending $400 on a laptop barely worth $200 when the Acer Aspire One can be had at BJ's for $350. One has to wonder if a donation of the extra $50 to the domestic or international charity of your choice might not get you one heck of a cool netbook and a lot more direct benefit for the recipients of the $50.

For that matter, Asus is practically giving away first-generation Eee's, Dell's Mini Inspiron is only $349 and the extra $50 should probably get stashed under your mattress since your 401k has probably lost half its value recently.

To be fair, any of us who can need to be charitable now more than ever. However, as the world sinks deeper into serious economic problems, little green laptops seem less and less like the answer. On a more pragmatic level, the XO is simply not relevant to kids in developed countries. It will not provide a satisfactory or even useful computing experience to kids whose parents will be buying these things from Amazon. There are too many other outstanding options, both for netbooks for you and your kids, and for your charitable contributions.