OLPC: the best designed notebook in the world

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is the best-designed notebook computer in the world. It just isn't designed for you.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is the best-designed notebook computer in the world. It just isn't designed for you. Get over it.

Criticism of the OLPC centers on the fact that it isn't like the notebooks adults use. As the ASUS Eee shows a low-cost conventional laptop can be powerful.

But that misses the point. The OLPC is a fundamental rethinking of the computing experience. One that is long overdue.

[photo courtesy OLPC]

Who is the target market? Children. And as anyone who's had children knows, kids can be pretty hard on the furniture.

OLPC brought in one of the top industrial design firms in the world, Design Continuum, to drive the design process, as well as Yves Behar, an industrial design superstar from San Francisco. That's why it doesn't look like your father's notebook. Or your Dell.

Great industrial design is why the iPhone is blowing away every smartphone out there. Why the iPod has an 80%+ market share. And why you can't find a Wii.

Don't kids deserve great industrial design?

OLPC has gotten it right This child's review of the OLPC suggests that Laptop.org has gotten it right. As a 9 year old's father writes:

So Rufus is using his laptop to write, paint, make music, explore the internet, and talk to children from other countries.

Because it looks rather like a simple plastic toy, I had thought it might suffer the same fate as the radio-controlled dinosaur or the roller-skates he got last Christmas - enjoyed for a day or two, then ignored.

Instead, it seems to provide enduring fascination.

I had returned from Nigeria not entirely convinced that the XO laptop was quite as wonderful an educational tool as its creators claimed. I felt that a lot of effort would be needed by hard-pressed teachers before it became more than just a distracting toy for the children to mess around with in class.

But Rufus has changed my mind.

With no help from his Dad, he has learned far more about computers than he knew a couple of weeks ago, and the XO appears to be a more creative tool than the games consoles which occupy rather too much of his time.

[emphasis added]

OLPC roots While the OLPC's industrial design chops rival Apple's, its real innovation is the software. Building on MIT educational theorist Seymour Papert's work - he invented the Logo language - the OLPC's re-thinks the relationship between man and machine.

OLPC differences The OLPC has activities instead of applications.

Activities are distinct from applications in their foci—collaboration and expression—and their implementation—journaling and iteration.

The collaboration comes in the form of built-in mesh networking that allows all local OLPCs to talk to each other.

By exploiting this connectivity, every activity has the potential to be a networked activity. We aspire that all activities take advantage of the mesh; any activity that is not mesh-aware should perhaps be rethought in light of connectivity. As an example, consider the web-browsing activity bundled with the laptop distribution. Normally one browses in isolation, perhaps on occasion sending a friend a favorite link. On the laptop, however, a link-sharing feature integrated into the browser activity transforms the solitary act of web-surfing into a group collaboration.

The connectivity is powerful. Young Rufus in England is conversing with kids who send him messages in Spanish. How does that work?

Expression is the goal of the activities and collaboration. Rather than downloading music, the laptop is equipped to create music. The rethinking extends to the file system:

The objectification of the traditional file system speaks more directly to real-world metaphors: instead of a sound file, we have an actual sound; instead of a text file, a story. In order to support this concept, activity developers may define object types and associated icons to represent them.

Another aspect of the system's UI is a focus on the Journal. This is more than written documentation of what a child has done.

The Journal combines entries explicitly created by the children with those that are implicitly created through participation in activities; developers must think carefully about how an activity integrates with the Journal more so than with a traditional file system that functions independently of an application. The activities, the objects, and the means of recording all tightly integrate to create a different kind of computer experience.

I'll be interested to see how children who grow up with the OLPC think about computers. I fear we have a generation of children whose creativity has been permanently stunted by the desktop metaphor.

The Storage Bits take Given how much effort is going into bolting on collaboration capabilities to our networked computers, OLPC has the right idea: build in collaboration from the beginning.

OLPC's biggest mistake is not marketing the OLPC in the industrialized world first. All the good intentions in the world won't convince the 3rd world that something is good unless it has been embraced by the opinion leaders of the 1st world.

Nicholas Negroponte, the driver behind OLPC, can still turn that around. If I were Steve Jobs, I'd be taking a very close look at this machine to see how it could be used to extend the Apple brand down to the primary grades. And, incidentally, further undermine Microsoft's hegemony.

Michael Dell could learn a few things too.

Update 12-21-07: One of the commenters noted that Birmingham, Alabama has signed an MOU with OLPC to buy 15,000 units for grades 1-8. Bravo! I also added Mr. Negroponte's name to the story. Update 2: Good video of Yves Behar talking about the design of the OLPC here.

Update 12-24-07: Alert reader George Mitchell commented on this story MIT spinoff's little green laptop computers a hit in remote Peruvian village. The money quote:

ARAHUAY, Peru: Doubts about whether poor, rural children really can benefit from quirky little computers evaporate as quickly as the morning dew in this hilltop Andean village, where 50 primary school children got machines from the One Laptop Per Child project six months ago.

Comments welcome. BTW, OLPC has a beautiful web site. Check it out.

Editorial standards