While I'm away...Kindlenomics and OLPC revisited

Since my wife is 6 months pregnant and my mom is visiting from Seattle, we've decided to take a night away while said mom watches the kids. As a result, you get one more repost.

Since my wife is 6 months pregnant and my mom is visiting from Seattle, we've decided to take a night away while said mom watches the kids. As a result, you get one more repost. I'll be back tomorrow, recharged after a bed and breakfast getaway; it will most likely be the last for some time to come with kid #5 on the way, so the laptop is staying home. This one was especially relevant given Wednesday's post on e-textbooks.

Fellow ZDNet blogger, Jason Perlow, wrote a neat piece suggesting that, if electronic versions of most college textbooks existed, it wouldn’t take many semesters for the average undergraduate to pay for the Kindle on which to read them. In fact, with a fair amount of arm-waving, it wasn’t too hard to conclude that a student could save several hundred dollars over their college career if an e-textbook ecosystem existed.

Of course, it doesn’t exist yet. Even the Kindle itself, with its grayscale interface and limited graphics capabilities, really isn’t there. However, last week I explored the idea of simply using a Kindle for literature and related textbooks in an elementary setting and concluded that, if licensing issues could be addressed, the Kindle could almost pay for itself as well (and possibly add some inherent value that might excuse the slight additional cost of the e-book reader).

So what do these two lessons in what Jason calls Kindlenomics teach us? First of all (and this is especially appropriate given that Amazon is now selling OLPC XO netbooks), the OLPC XO is done for. Its book reader is rife with many of the compromises also seen in the Kindle and has no annotation capability. The hardware itself is painfully slow and limited on storage and, despite an innovative and green (both literally and environmentally) package, doesn’t address a broad range of educational applications. Neither the Kindle nor the XO provides students with what they really need for a streamlined, technology-enhanced learning application and both exist at a pricepoint that is really too high. Worse yet, it hasn’t caught the imagination of developers in the way that, for example, the iPhone and Android have.

What Kindlenomics really taught us is that anyone who can actually build the hardware and find partnerships in the publishing industry is sitting on a goldmine for themselves and a real boon for students at all levels. This is where the Kindroid comes in. Kindroid is another Perlow-ism that gives us an idea of what the Kindle and its ilk could become if they were opened up on the Android platform to developers.

Give me an open, Android-based device, with a touch-screen, keyboard and Internet connection (cellular or WiFi; it really doesn’t matter), a forward-looking publishing company, and an open e-textbook file format, and I’ll give you a paradigm in which students and schools save a lot of money, while providing students with easy access to resources in textbooks and on the web. You have the best of both worlds in ways that the Kindle (due to its closed software, limited ecosystem, display limitations, and crappy web browser) or the XO (due to its hardware limitations, lack of appeal to anyone but the Pre-K through 5 set, and limited ecosystem) simply cannot.

Can this be done for a reasonable price? I don’t know, but nobody is going to object if a consortium of textbook publishers, hardware manufacturers, and software developers wanted to put together a reference spec. The old adage of “Build it and they will come” would hopefully follow shortly thereafter. This can even be a profitable model for all involved, while saving trees and money for students and schools.

Put the XO on steroids or wait for XO 2.0, you say! I say get the likes of Amazon and OLPC out of the hardware business and let them leverage their connections to the academic and publishing worlds to design machines with open software that make sense in a new environment where textbooks and the Web are intricately linked. Let Amazon forge new partnerships and OLPC develop a robust pedagogical model and crowdsource the software to make it all run. The XO has done what it needs to do for the world. Let’s let Kindlenomics dictate the next steps as we create a new generation of machines genuinely useful to students at all levels and in all areas of the world, both developed and developing. Get the specs out there and let competing manufacturers get us Kindroids at prices we can afford. It’s working for netbooks, isn’t it?