4 November 2008

Why I switched to the OLPC—and why I dropped it

Not Free at Any Price

Richard Stallman blames Windows for the failure of the OLPC project.

Teaching children to use Windows is like teaching them to smoke tobacco—in a world where only one company sells tobacco.

I love RMS and his cranky militant F/OSS-ness, but he's tragically off base in his assertion that OLPC retreat from free software into Windows is the main culprit.

Granted, I share his disdain for proprietary computing platforms (in principle, as I must confess that I'm writing this on a machine running Mac OS X), and I too was enthused about OLPC — I took part in the buy one, give one promotion.

However, the lords of OLPC regrettable decision to embrace Windows falls far down on the list of snafus that doomed this worthy project. From my purchase encounter and brief usage trial (I donated the machine I got to a missionary who pledged to take my gift to Africa with her, but I am not certain where it ultimately ended up), here are some bigger reasons for its failure:

  1. Dreadful initial box unpacking experience — worse than Windows and definitely in total contrast to the Apple experience. No manual is provided, only a paper sleeve that instructs the owner to view an online manual. But that would not be so awful if at least once you powered on the machine for the first time, you could easily load up a 1-2-3 check sheet on how to get up and running with minimal fanfare.
  2. Out of the box crippled WiFi — in order to get the wireless internet card to work with most major access point devices, one needed to create a shell script and execute to have wireless work. Not a major issue for a geek handy with CLI and already in possession of an internet connection. But far from user friendly.
  3. Limited availability — I realize the target market was disadvantaged youth in the developing world, but OLPC would have gotten a much bigger boost if instead buy one, give one, they enacted a buy one, give one (foreign) and give one (domestic). As it was, much of the momentum the project garnered was through last Christmas season buy one, give one. After that campaign, OLPC faded into obscurity.
  4. Flawed UI — a lot of criticism has been heaped upon the Sugar UI, especially by the design savvy crowd, but it would have worked if the major programs (a) actually all worked and (b) the menu list was shortened so that user could actually easily discern what the button functions were. Instead, it was a smorgasbord of mystery meat icons. After receiving my machine last Christmas, I lent it to a work mate who let his young children play on it. They played with it for about 5 minutes, and then never touched it again. They did not get it. While it's purely anecdotal, I cannot imagine crafting a machine that would not arouse curiosity from a kid. Again, the target demographic for it is kids who are not blessed with an abundance of other electronic gadgetry — Americans spoiled with Gameboys, Nintendo Wii, etc… no doubt have little patience for such a device whereas it would be the sole computing device for an African child.

Even though take one was deficient in many respects, I had hoped version 2.0+ would address the shortcomings and continue embrace of F/OSS platform. Instead, it appears that OLPC is settling to be a crappier facsimile of its competitor suite of like product.


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