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Hacking the OLPC v2

Hacking the OLPC v2There’s been a veritable bevy of blog posts and rebuttals lately debating what went wrong with the OLPC and what sort of device should follow in its wake. Like a lot of other technology devotees, I’ve watched from the start the meteoric rise and much-publicized decline of the project, which once promised so much but has yet to deliver on the scale its architects had hoped for. There’s been enough punditry, religious warring and snarky commentary following the OLPC’s capitulation to XP to fill volumes. I’m more interested in what form the future OLPC might take, and who will build it. These recent discussions have provided fuel for the imagination.

I think the question of which is better, mobile or a laptop/netbook will become moot as these devices continue toward their inevitable convergence, WiFi networks proliferate in lesser-served parts of the world, and manufacturing costs are further reduced toward the elusive $100 mark. The tantalizing next-generation OLPC (dubbed the XO-2) with its dual touchscreens already resembles an oversized iPhone in both form and function. Availability: sometime in 2010. Maybe.

What should fill the gap between now and then? Until African children can get their hands on the XO-2, or an Android- or Symbian-powered device, perhaps with a foldable keyboard, surely something can be leveraged from all the effort that went into the OLPC.

I’ve spent many hours teaching kids in Cameroonian classrooms, both with computers and the old-fashioned way with a blackboard and, occasionally, printed materials. I can say with certainty that what’s needed in terms of hardware is something rugged and capable of dealing with heat, humidity and dust. Long battery life and a method for off-grid recharging is a must. And no one can argue against the value of having a laptop-like device with a full-sized interface for learning versus a handheld mobile device. Different tools for different purposes.

Last week, while cruising the daily RSS feeds, I offhandedly tweeted this:

Later, I got to thinking about it. Was it such a crazy idea? A dead simple, $200 tablet with a focus on cloud computing seemed like just the ticket. Then, just for laughs, I dummied this up in Photoshop (apologies to TechCrunch):

Hacking the OLPC v2

Like the XO Laptop, Sugar has its share of detractors, often citing it as unintuitive, clunky, inappropriate or worse, but I think they’re missing the point. Nicholas Negroponte has some strong words on this subject:

“In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint. I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools.”

Mr. Negroponte is dead on here. I did my best to engage kids in Cameroon with something other than Word (my binary numbers and ASCII lessons were unexpected hits), since Microsoft Office is already taught by default in every school lucky enough to have a computer lab. As a platform for learning, the philosophy and design behind Sugar is incredibly compelling. I can only imagine what a classroom full of my kids in Cameroon would do with a couple dozen “CrunchPad OLPC v2” tablet PCs running Linux and Sugar.

Could a homegrown, bottom-up designed CrunchPad-esque tablet PC be coaxed into doing this? The answer is an emphatic: absolutely! The good news is, Sugar Labs, a non-profit foundation whose mission is to produce, distribute, and support the use of the Sugar learning platform under a number of Linux distributions is already on it. Sugar is now a community project available under the open-source GNU General Public License (GPL) and free to anyone who wants to use or extend it.

As Miquel of Maneno noted, Africans are incredibly resourceful. Might it be possible for a geographically dispersed group of devoted hackers, with the support of the open source community, hardware partners and VC pooled from the diaspora, to produce the next OLPC—here in Africa? Heck, others are already eager to jump on the CrunchPad bandwagon. Surely crazier things have happened.




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