I went through my entire school and undergraduate college without once bringing my laptop into the classroom. My mother and father learned to program in FORTRAN using nothing but pen, paper and the occasional slide rule.
Paper books, decent sized notebooks and ballpoint pens. Spend $100 on that. That will actually help. This whole project was solving a first world problem in the third world.
The cheapest way to give 100 books to someone in the third world is to give them a laptop (and a way to power it.)
Also, for most of their target audience, the laptop would be the brightest source of light in their home.
This image, in particular:
So, no, don't think of it as a "laptop," it's just an educational device in a laptop form factor.
That said, I had major problems with how OLPC executed on that vision.
Granted eReaders were a niche at the time of OLPC, we didn't fully grok where laptops fell on the useful vs distracting scale and the idea of a general purpose computer you could also teach kids to code on seemed really really cool and probably the best way to on-board them onto the internet.
All in all, OLPC's heart was in the right place, but until we know how to properly introduce computers into the classroom as a general purpose educational device, something more like a rugged eReader and open source textbooks feels like it would be more productive in accomplishing at least some of the goals of OLPC.
An eReader can serve the role of a general purpose computing device, but it would not serve that role as well as a laptop.
So if you optimize a rugged poly-carbonate brick you could take through a Monsoon, Typhoon, Sandstorm and/or War Zone for the sole purpose of loading text and simple document files and a low-power display, stuffed with only a battery, enough compute power to accomplish the task it is given and cover any overhead, and enough storage to hold however many books you decide you want it to hold, without any graphics or sound (or perhaps very simple graphics), then you still have something meaningful.
You have a Library of Alexandria that any kid can carry in their arms without any of the ideological attachments that the XO had. It holds information in a human readable format and is capable of displaying that information to the person who holds it so long as they are literate.
Much like a modern day light bulb can be a general-purpose computing device that for some reason has been limited to turning on and off in different colors. It might not seem terribly useful to you, but it thanklessly serves the role it has been tasked with without a source code button, a mesh network, a fancy GUI, or a Squeak environment.
It is a meaningful distinction to make because it will ultimately shape your budget and your ability to actually distribute devices in meaningful quantities to the device's intended users.
I'm all for designing things right, but I think it's not important to get caught up in the naming.
Display. Storage. Battery. Some way to charge it when you're nowhere near reliable electricity. Maybe a keyboard. Maybe the ability to communicate with other ones in a mesh. Maybe they can hook up to the internet if it's available.
And then lots and lots of great content pre-loaded.
For instance, ka-lite, the downloadable Khan Academy:
"The 4781 videos that are available currently have a size of 57.1 Gigabyte."
That's really not that big, any more.
I'd find that useful. I'm sure people/kids in developing countries would too.
An ereader already contains all of the hardware to be an interactive computer (especially if it has a keyboard, like the kindle 1, 2 and 3). It really shouldn't cost any more to deploy an Alan Kay-style dynabook than to deploy ereader appliances.
> the idea of a general purpose computer you could also teach kids to code on seemed really really cool
The idea wasn't that you could teach programming with the aid of the computers. The idea was that you could teach everything with the aid of computers.
Strangely enough the first kindle e-reader was released the same month as the XO laptop:
Cheap 10" tablets are definitely easier to make than cheap 10" E-readers, though.
Interactive learning is critical, and I'm some cases superior to passive learning. An interactive device can become passive, but not so much the contrary.
> but until we know how to properly introduce computers into the classroom as a general purpose educational device
1. We can only know how they can be used in the third world by giving them to the third world. Any lessons learned with first world children are not obviously transferrable. This is a big problem with a lot of research in psych.
2. You're assuming the third world kids getting these, or who would most benefit, are already learning in a classroom. I see no reason to accept that assumption. Seems to me, the ones who benefit even more are those who have little to no access to consistent education, so your objection does not apply.
I doubt it. Have a look at these prices. The most expensive books do not exceed ₹150. A 100 of those costs ₹15000. $100 = ₹6500. Plus add the power source. You get very close to ₹15000. And as we saw, $100 was nowhere near enough to make a good usable laptop/educational device. So you need to spend more. And that is when compared to Amazon! Buying books wholesale (or printing them) will be even cheaper.
Not to mention the storage and care of 100 books in less-than-ideal housing where moisture and rodents are very real problems. Plus the actual volume of 100 some books.
Compared to a laptop, that can sit in your bag, and also serve as a light source.
It doesn't need to be a good laptop, it just has to be a laptop. There were still french farmers using text only BBS like terminals a decade ago, quite happily.
I think both situations have unique benefits and drawbacks, and ranking which of those are worth more than others is something we don't yet have an objective measure for. As such, the comparison still seems quite subjective, even if we can give concrete numbers to a lot of the comparisons. The answer to which is best might even be situational.
For reference, I buy my niece some nice books for $1 each. These last the who year and are available everywhere.
Also, you don't buy 100 books at once. A year in school will need about 10 books. Send the next 10 next year.
But I believe that _that_ is « The real reason why OLPC failed », not that it would have been a bad idea if it were possible.
Here's a directory dump from one of mine: https://alexvh.me/share/olpc-library-listing.txt
A laptop is a great tool for studying. Word Processing makes editing papers much easier than the old markup and rewrite method. The web makes researching topics and cross referencing documents much easier. Nothing beats actually running code for learning how to program.
If I was going to spend $100/yr on educational supplies for a student I wouldn't spend it on a laptop. Pencils, notebooks, and textbooks are more important. If I was going to spend $1000/yr on educational supplies for a student I 100% would include a computer.
The classroom was one of the biggest distractions to learning I faced. Early access to a computer was not only the foundation of my productive education, I don't exaggerate when I say it may have saved my life.
I'm someone who gets distracted very easily, so my compromise was blocking websites that caused distractions during class so that I could focus on annotating class powerpoints rapidly.
Okay. Google study technology interferes with learning and do some reading.
If you personally know you're going to spend most of that time in the classroom going on Facebook or Twitter, then you should have the self-control to not bring your laptop to class.
And everyone should have self control, optimal intelligence, etc. But that's not how the world works.
As for Facebook and Twitter, how about the 20 minutes spent in every trig class making sure that everyone's TI-82 was set to radians and not degrees, and running around the class addressing errors caused by typos? That's time that could be better spent on classic analysis. What about the complete rabbit's hole that is Wikipedia?
So is it possible to make education better with technology? Maybe not with laptops, but with other tools (smart boards, perhaps?). Has any evidence shown that it makes learning better?
I'm talking about all of it. Learning traditional mathematic analysis techniques creates a far deeper understanding than just plonking a formula into a program to look at a graph.
"Smart boards" don't do anything, except perhaps allow distribution of what's drawn on the whiteboard. I worked for a "smart board" company. They're neat for managerial presentations and a complete boondoggle for education.
Technology is pushed into education because it makes deans, principals, and superintendents look good on their resume. But the actual outcomes are worse for everyone else.
In this context, a laptop is as useless as a paper weight. They need basic stuff like books, pens, decent lunches, desks to write on etc.
I'm sorry but having your "heart in the right place" doesn't cut it. They wasted money on useless crap that could have been spent on far more useful stuff.
To my mind OLPC is a success if .01% of the kids who get one learn something important. That OLPC can make thousands of books available is useful: it lets the kid who digs in learn something that their village needs has never done before.
It seems really reasonable to have laptops off during instruction periods, have them on for some labs, and use them to help with homework.
Pencils, paper, white/blackboards, books, chairs, desks, walls, windows, electric lighting, HVAC systems, and even clothing are all “technology”.
I think everyone on Hacker News can agree that Technology Is The Worst (tm)
That's the least innovative way of thinking. Ever.
PS: I'm not saying $100 laptops in Africa or good or bad, just saying your argument is ridiculous.
But your argument is exactly that: You're implying that books and pencils are more important for education than "high"-tech.
Do you really think having a pencil, textbook and a notepad is more important than having access to the internet with countless, excellent free resources of education (e.g. Khan Academy).
Additionally, having a dictionary, spell checker and encyclopedia at your fingertips make a laptop a great addition to a classroom.
Solar-charged laptops can be weather-sealed and are much less useful for unintended destructive uses.
When the US military was trying to put Iraq and Afghanistan back together, someone there approached OLPC about supplying the XO-1 to the kids. A huge concern was that it could be turned into a really effective IED trigger. There is a camera to detect motion, a DC-capable audio jack for wiring in arbitrary parts, the speakers and microphone for range-finding, the resistive touchpad as a pressure sensor, and of course the WiFi for sending commands. To initiate the explosion there was an audio output jack, USB ports that could be powered on or off, and a screen backlight.
Any peer-reviewed studies on a grade school computer-based curricula out there?
None of my English teachers have brought a hammer into the classroom. The Physics/science teachers need one of those 2 meter cartoon rubber hammers for some demonstrations. The shop class needs 40 different types of hammers, and 6 of them there is enough for each student to have one. The art class needs a couple hammers, and once in a while the teacher will borrow a complete set from the shop classroom. You can continue the logic for other areas.
Now that have set our mind right, what about computers. There are a number of places where computers are useful in school, but only rarely is it because they are a computer. In English class you need a word processor - there is no particular reason a dedicated word processor only machine wouldn't work just as well if a modern one existed. Likewise in all other classes, the important part isn't the computer, the important part is the software the computer is running.
You need comprehensively designed curricula that can exploit all the tech available in a completely integrated way. Instead it seems you get a pile of tablets, then a subscription to an online system, and it relies on the particular teachers comfort level with the tech and willingness to include it.
In UK schools the use of tech seems mostly unsophisticated.
If someone could make a robust laptop for $100 I could easily believe in it being a net gain, even if it was only ever used for reading textbooks.
* it works even after getting a bit wet
* it works even if I sit on it (caveat: the hinge will definitely snap if I sit on the screen while it is open)
* I highlight, underline, and annotate documents with it
* I can do useful work in it. (As an example, I made  on one of my OLPC XO-1 laptops. I also developed a patch for ico  on the same laptop.)
* I can easily copy and share my work or other people's work with it.
(If you want, I can post some videos to defend this. The OLPC is a really well-designed piece of hardware, and too few people have gotten to experience it.)
If textbooks were cheaper, Khan Academy would not be successful.
Open Educational Resources (OER) hopefully will make some inroads on this but until then, textbooks are generally more expensive.
But if we could get to the stage where the licensing costs are are small compared to the production costs, the laptop would do better, because it could contain thousands of books.
If the goal is to live like a 300BC tribesman then they don't need books, they will follow adults and learn what works. Even today for the poor that is 80% of their life: learn from and do what the adults before them did.
Where reading helps is when the kids get interested in something they couldn't know. Should they start no-til farming in their fields - done right it builds the soil, but done wrong and there is a complete crop failure. They need to build a new hut - is there modern construction methods that they could apply to build a better hut? Those are just a few of the questions that they can learn from a book, but there is no reason for everybody in the village to learn that, just one specialist.
Scale that to the students themselves - if they don't have early digital exposure, they very likely will be excluded from being digital natives.
Add to the mix, needing the same curriculum in many languages. Some of these problems can be assisted digitally.
But if you could get thousands of books on a laptop you wouldn't need to know _which_ 200 books a given child would benefit from most.
I'm more optimistic about this than you seem to be. The OLPC XO-1 has a lithium-iron phosphate battery , which are only now reaching the end of their design lives. Anecdotally, I have two XO-1 laptops, and one still has hours of battery life, and the other has only a little over one hour.
There is no rotating media. There are no fans. The keyboard is a single piece of silicone rubber. I've dropped one of mine from waist-high onto a vinyl floor, and only a piece of trim plastic popped off. (I put if back on later with a screwdriver.)
It doesn't seem unreasonable to me that they could last 10 years in the field, especially seeing as how mine are ten years old and are nearly pristine.
In third world countries like mine (India), the government produces text book content, prints and sells the books at subsidized prices. Stationery items are totally untaxed. If you look at the link I provided, you will realize that the most expensive textbooks in India cost about $2. $100 will buy 5 years worth of books for a student. That's much more useful than a substandard PDA with wifi.
Textbooks for higher education cost a few more than $2 each.
I agree that reading textbooks on a laptop is not ideal. But giving someone 600 books in 1 device has merit, especially when those devices are shared.
I do like the comments in this article pertaining to e-readers. I am a very late convert to Kindles, and they are usable.
In India particularly, devices like the $35 Aakash tablet are also making inroads.
It all, like you said comes down to accessibility of quality content. Digital delivery will continue to have an increased role in that.
Yes, but being able to read them at any moment in any place certainly does require power. Hard to read a paper book a night or in a room without windows.
Sure it sounds like labor, but does a child in a deprived country need to learn how to make text bold, write a formula or even code.
Do I hear a $300? Or is that all we got?
One of the problems with providing charity in Africa is the ridiculous amount of superstition that pervades every aspect of African life. If we can remove one or two of these superstitions, then uplifting African society will be so much easier (perhaps it is ethnocentric of me to assume that African society wants and/or needs to be uplifted, maybe that's why the program failed?).
There was a video posted a while back where the students of a South African university were mad that they weren't learning about magic. Yes, magic. They had "seen magic" in their villages and were upset that the university was teaching them that magic wasn't possible (It didn't help that the lessons were coming from white people, but that's another issue).
You can't fix adults when they get all the way to university with those kinds of superstitions, you just need to start on the next generation and hope the lessons stick.
The superstition that is prevalent is one person believing neighbors and relatives are bewitching them or using them somehow to fuel their success. Having come from such a background, that has not stopped my education. Secondly if you spent 1 hour in any African village, you would realize how highly people think of their own governments, white people and people from towns. The challenge we have is that due to corruption by our own people (who the multitude trust) who fail to bring us the books, pens and pencils, we fall victim to the west's kindness and sometimes propensity for such uninformed nonsense as you have written above.
Also, absolutely no one would take any of those South African students seriously, it's a joke. We are not as backwards as you think. Unless you also believe thoughts and prayers will stop your mass shootings.
Lastly, the west's general belief in the superstitution of praying to a guy who was nailed to a cross then resurrected after 3 days seems NOT to have had a negative bearing on your development. How do you suppose witchcraft has held back Africans?
Perhaps I was wrong to target superstition, but there is something there that made it much more difficult to operate than the program for Canadian indigenous people. I really hoped that OLPC would bring some truth to these communities, I personally felt that's what we fought against the most - the lack of truth.
Call it uninformed, but you look at your situation differently than an outsider does. Just because you were able to get through the bullshit doesn't mean that millions of your neighbors will as well.
My central point is that superstition is not the cause of our relative backwardness in world standards of wealth/health and equality, neither is it a contributing factor. It's merely a symptom.
Superstition is a symptom of poor means, not a cause of them. Therefore the central point of your statement being that "If we can remove one or two of these superstitions, then uplifting African society will be so much easier" is ridiculous.
Take any African child, give him food, shelter and an education (Hello Maslow). See how fast he will drop his belief that his uncle or grandfather bewitched him. I wish I had a better argument to make than saying that I am a product of that transition and I see it playing out everyday in every corner of my country and the neighboring countries with the same start and end.
To expand a little on that, we do not need "truth". An African child in my experience needs food first, then shelter, then books and pencils which in my corner of the world cost $10 for one child for a year. When that child has the basics of education pat down, he will now seek knowledge(truth?), he will now have use and time for the latest rasberry pi powered widget and so on.
One of the best things I have seen to work wonders around these parts are the school feeding programs we have in very few locations. You see these programs take care of the food aspect and the poorest of parents are inspired to take their children to school, chiefly because the child can now have food (priority 1) while also learning (priority x based on the parent's education level/social beliefs and so on).
OLPC atleast from my take on it is the equivalent of throwing a suitcase of money to a drowning man. Yes, once he is out of the water he will love it, but it is of little utility when his priority is just the next breath or the next day in the lives of African kids.
Cultural differences, and language barriers would likely have been a much bigger problem for a project in Africa compared to Canada. I can only look back at my time doing such project and think how stupid an naive I was, too much my way, but we did have some very experienced folks living in the larger cummunity who grounded the work.
Doing intercultural things is wonderful work, but sometimes you do not have the tools to handle it I know I didn't.
There are certainly enough people in the US who believe just that.
I bought one when they came out in 2007 and there still isn't a laptop that I've seen that is a durable as the XO. My 3-year old at the time danced on top of it, threw it across the room, and dropped it countless times and it was just fine. It came with a complete repair manual and you could use standard tools to take it apart and put it back together, which I did for fun even though I never needed to. The membrane keyboard was almost unusable and eventually one of the kids that I let play with it dug their fingernail into the edge of a key and ripped it right off. It would have been easy to replace the membrane, but by then we weren't really using it much.
The screen was pretty nifty for its time. It was dual mode, backlit or frontlit. You could go outside on a sunny day, turn off the backlight and have a high-resolution frontlit, completely readable (though black and white) display. It didn't look amazing indoors and new phone screens are readable both indoors and out for the most part, but again for its time it was amazing.
Netbooks are an interesting case too. They didn't succeed in the sense of ushering in Linux on the desktop for somewhat undersized and powered laptops. But they did help push laptops to lower price points, especially as price/performance got low-end laptops to the point where they didn't need to be underpowered to work.
And Raspberry Pis came onto the scene as well of course.
I had no idea that was even possible. Are there any laptops available that have this feature now? I would kill to be able to write blog posts and work on my book or do terminal work outside on a sunny day.
Just got flooded by nostalgia. My SL-C760 was a wonderful piece of hardware, and the level of software tweaking is still unmatched.
I'm missing hardware keyboards on smartphones very much.
Nope. At one point, there were two netbooks that could have an off-the-shelf  pixel qi display fitted into them .
> I would kill to be able to write blog posts and work on my book or do terminal work outside on a sunny day.
That's the main reason I keep my 2 OLPC XO-1 laptops around. I have Debian running on them, and am working to be able to use them for working out-of-doors.
I've read lots of comments on HN expressing similar interest. Maybe I should develop some hardware for that.
PixelQi got as far as building working prototypes that could be installed in ordinary laptops, but no takers from the laptop industry.
Are you suggesting the only difference is in the controller board? From what little I know about them the Pixel Qi screens use the same manufacturing techniques as standard LCD screens, but I'd still be inclined to believe that the screens are different from standard LCD screens.
With a lot more development time maybe they could have fixed the problems. Maybe.
In grayscale mode, you got 1200x900 resolution. That was about 200 dpi, so quite sharp for the day. (typical was more like 85 dpi back then)
In color mode, the screen was blurred. It was a 3x3 blur, without the typical pixel/subpixel distinction. Effective resolution was something like 692x519 based on the number of green pixels.
Color mode in the sunlight would look grey, but it was still blurry. You had to switch modes if you wanted the full 1200x900.
Turning backlight brightness all the way down was the mode switch as presented in the UI. Very old versions of the UI made it explicit. At the MMIO level of course, there was a bit that got toggled.
Is there any written evidence of this in old tech articles, etc.? I totally believe this could be possible, but it also could be a simple case of convergent evolution.
Anybody still doing anything useful or interesting with theirs?
In one of my other comments in this thread, I mentioned that I used my olpc to animate this logo  and to make a patch adding a dodecahedron to the X.org utility ico .
After doing a bit of research, I have come to the conclusion that the best way to help poor people is to give away phones. I think it would really help people keep in contact with friends and family as well as help bootstrap innumerous businesses and really help the GDP of these countries. Sadly I have yet to find a service that lets me send new (cheap) smartphones to people in need.
Although I do not like a tiered internet, I do like the premise of Zuckerberg's Internet.org project. I think that access to Wikipedia in particular should be a right these days. For some reason I always idolize it (along with Kindles) as being the path towards creating a Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy for everyone.
Until February 2018, Wikipedia had a similar zero-rating program called Wikipedia Zero .
> [Wikipedia] (along with Kindles) as being the path towards creating a Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy for everyone
The WikiReader  tried to get even closer to this -- a physical Wikipedia device. Too bad it failed commercially, it was another really nifty gadget.
I love this idea of letting children/students build their own computers. If it's designed well, it could be both educational and economical. They can learn about the parts and what they do - processor, memory, storage device, etc. - while they're putting them together. Then they can explore the operating system and start programming their own applications..
I can buy an 8" tablet from Aliexpress and get it shipped to me for $70, it even has a SIM slot.
In my travels through Asia, I've discovered that practically everyone has a smartphone. Most of these people have never owned a PC and never will, but they all have computers now.
Unfortunately as the project loses momentum these types of stories are dwindling; here's one example from the aggregator:
We at OLPC France started https://sugarizer.org : a HTML/JS rewrite of Sugar. Real-time collaboration on pedagogical activities, the journal to browse past activities, all this in plain HTML/JS.
Contributions are welcome!
I don't know how it compares to OLPC, but it's basically what you're describing.
The pi-top is only very superficially what shams93 describes.
The biggest problem however is that it costs as much as a cheap netbook before you include the Raspberry Pi and SD Card. Finally, I'm not one of those people who has to have the thinnest laptop ever, but the inside of the Pitop is cavernous. You can actually store an ethernet cable inside of the laptop! But it's hilariously thick, it feels like a 1990s laptop.
The product page doesn't give details of the battery, so I assume it's lithium ion rather than lithium ferrous phosphate (i.e. prone to explode)? Can't see what screen technology they're using, but if it's anything like standard laptops it won't be readable in sunlight and will require a power-hungry backlight.
Thankfully modern laptops don't seem to require mercury in their backlights (now that they're LED), so the "non-toxic backlight" feature of the OLPC is no longer necessary.
I have been looking for and would eagerly buy a Rasberry PI retrofit kit if someone makes one.
XMPPwocky: My own https://xkcd.com/349/ story. Yesterday, I worked my way from "I should try installing Qubes OS on my dual-boot" to "I have no working boot discs, no CD drive, and no OS on the actual hard drive". Today, i got to try and fix that.
XMPPwocky: The issue is, this is my only computer. so I can't make any bootable media to boot from, except I also had, tucked away in my closet, an OLPC XO-1. Aaand I couldn't find the charger.
XMPPwocky: What I could find? The hand-crank charger.
XMPPwocky: To make a long story short, I cranked through the
entire download and installation of an Ubuntu liveCD.
XMPPwocky: would not recommend
OLPC also ticked off a huge crowd of free software people who had enthusiastically showed up to help. People were eager to support a machine that would never run Windows... until they were betrayed on that. Lots of people jumped ship over that, even though Microsoft didn't really follow through.
Add in a few technical mistakes, and that was that: the WiFi on an internal USB connection affecting power management, the dual-mode touchpad being hopelessly inaccurate, Python being absurdly inappropriate for the GUI of a low-end system, the 16-bit video depth causing terrible performance with all modern code, depending on mesh networking which was more of a failing research project than a viable protocol, some very experimental overlay filesystem stuff...
They weren't interested in individual sales at all, but they would sell into the US the same as anywhere else: to public education bodies.
It was envisioned as a system-of-education project with technology as a key enabler, not a consumer technology project.
> Chromebooks and cellphones hit the price point now, and don't require an NGO.
The point of the NGO wasn't the price point, though keeping g the price down was one important requirement.
Yeah, not so much. I never could get a response out of them for a tribal college with plenty of students and a young children's program. They really had their preferred people and just wouldn't talk to anyone else.
One of the more bizarre twists of the project was that, I think in part because of the well intentioned but incredibly naive liberal utopianism of the project, to use an existing computing paradigm (windows, mouse pointers, etc) would be a form of colonialism.
Therefore, to avoid being colonial oppressors, these educational laptops required a completely new desktop environment and computer interaction paradigm. Obviously, since the colonial computing environment uses lots of rectangles, everything in this decolonized paradigm would be circles. Lots and lots of circles. Obviously, this put the project massively behind schedule, and it was beaten to the punch by the flood of super cheap Asus "netbook" computers - which all ran Windows XP or Ubuntu Netbook Edition.
I finally became disillusioned after going to an incredibly cringey talk with Nicholas Negropente, where his answer about why do African children need laptops rather than vaccines was that we should imagine the beauty of a family in a hut gathered round the an OLPC reading Wikipedia together, or some such drivel. He was really out of his depth, and I think probably only got the project because of his brother's connections.
Still, I loved the OLPC. Cool toy, great screen. Once the Intel clones and the RPi came out, it became completely irrelevant though.
For a project that was literally an educational experiment, that's pretty damning.
The early OLPC prototypes had a hand crank for power. Everyone loved that idea, internally at the OLPC project and in the public. But, when they were trying to build the final design, the materials scientists said the stresses involved in that crank would cause longevity problems. "We can totally solve this, we just need to make the frame out of titanium." "Uh... Thanks guys, but this is supposed to be a $100 laptop."
I worked at OLPC, and I thought this aspect ultimately ended up fine: we quickly moved to having a separate pullcord charger instead. The pullcord didn't put any stress on the laptop, and you generated power with actual large muscle groups along your body, rather than just rotating your wrist, so it was massively more efficient. But everyone kept mentioning the crank, for sure.
This is judging the Newton by the iPad. It's judging stallman by torvalds. It's judging CDE by KDE
"I thought it would work! I planned those thing right down to the last detail. It was perfect! Where'd you get those tablets???"
"As God as my witness, I though tablets could fly."
E-readers haven't sunk that far yet, but they're getting close.
It never worked, when he showed it to me the thing wouldn't boot due to storage errors and it was never fixed, DOA. I was seriously bummed out, as I really wanted it to be the laptop I could use for hacking outside in direct sunlight.
If they didn't, no wonder it didn't catch on, kids needed connectivity first, hopefully with ability to play videos and easy to share them and other high-volume content via dirt cheap usb-sticks (a free stick should've been included in the pack), not something to write on as pen and paper are much better for that when learning anyway...
Or at least was it usable as a kindle substitute and did it came preloaded with at least a few thousand sciency books on it? To make it at least sort of usable without networking... No?!
...then what problem were they solving?!
Yes it did. Anecdotal, but I've gotten my two OLPC XO-1 laptops to network together just fine.
> did it came preloaded with at least a few thousand sciency books on it?
Yes it did. They're called Collections , and part of the deployment process is to select what collections will be on the laptops . Here  is a listing of the collections on the default English release.
The OLPC scared the industry to death. MS was so scared that it made Windows work on it. Tablets did not exist as consumer goods at the time (we had some but only for businesses and they were not practical to use) and all the major PC maker were expected year after year to churn out low cost laptops for the "education" market.
Then tablets came and the whole product category just disappeared.
Why did OLPC require a "developer key"? (develop.sig)
Will there ever be OpenFirmware-compatible hardware where the Forth bootloader is signed by the owner of the computer?
Will the buyer ever have the option of owning and controlling the so-called "developer key"?
Will there always be a requirement for the seller to retain a "developer key" and for the buyer to request it after purchase? Why or why not?
> Why did OLPC require a "developer key"?
So that kids can't casually screw up their laptops, but people who want to modify their software can. You can read more here  and here .
Your other questions appear to be more speculative and less specific to OLPC, so I can't answer them.
I'm still waiting on my transflective screen, though.
And on world education.
But hey, these people tried to create a solution. How many people talk and talk, but never do anything?
And even if they didn't succeed as originally intended, all you people typing on your oh-so thin and light ultrabooks, can thank OLPC for helping get the ball rolling.
For example this graph of literacy over the last 25 years (under the heading "Regional Disparities"):
I gave it away a few years ago to someone who could give it a better use (teacher), but now that I have a kid on my own, I'd like to give him something like this. Any recommendations?
My dad gave me a broken Mac Plus and told me that if I could fix it, it's mine to keep. I swapped out the motherboard myself, at age 8.
Later on, my dad bought me an iBook G3. At age 15, I bought a class set of 20 iBooks and sold them to friends for $150 each.
Don't worry about their computer not being new/fast enough. They'll figure out what to do with it to push it to the limits. Please do give them root access.
This pi-top seems like what I want, I need to check if it works with another board.
I used an X41 as my only laptop during my last year of college (2016-2017). I spent $35 for the laptop on ebay and $25 for a hard drive.
I don't recommend anything older than the X41 for most people; it was the first X-series laptop to have SSE2.
The thinkpad x100e, x120e, x130e, x131e, and x141e are/were specifically intended for classroom use, have decent specs, and can be purchased inexpensively on ebay.
Also: many people like the tablet form-factor x-series laptops, but I would not recommend one for a child.
Err, kids in poor areas have less ability to turn a handle than those in wealthy areas?
So this "failure" seems to have helped millions, learned a bunch and developed some OSS. I should hope to fail so hard myself someday.
The UX (both keyboard and software) was .. just awful.
The software + hardware was really poor, even for the time. (Even the original Raspberry Pi is significantly faster -- I know this isn't a fair comparison, but just for reference)
Also a lot of the OLPC functionality didn't work reliably, or didn't work at all. I bought it specifically for the mesh networking, which was cut entirely. The devices did work over WiFi, but would struggle to see other OLPCs over wifi reliably, even when connected to the same AP. I spent a lot of time reading forums online to troubleshoot and download fixed drivers and such. I remember explicitly wondering "how are children in poor areas who depend on mesh networked internet, supposed to be figuring all of this out?".
The screen was hard to use. The e-Paper mode was nice, but the regular mode was blurry/grainy and slow and dim and just difficult to see. In terms of Software + UI + responsiveness, it felt more like a really big Palm Pilot, and less like a laptop.
I loved the mission, I loved the ideas, I loved the design. The exterior of the case really was durable and kid-friendly. I loved the idea of the screen. I threw them more money than was reasonable. I was just fairly underwhelmed by the device as it actually shipped. It felt like a prototype of a dev kit, which is fine. But it was sold as something for children to use, and at least at the time I messed with them, it was nowhere near ready for that.
• The hardware was not designed in conjunction with the software; it seems to have been built based on a "wishlist" of features drawn up before the software was developed. There were a number of major hardware features which were unused or unsupported by software, including but not limited to the resistive tablet, the low-power-mode ("e-reader mode") for the display, and even several of the hardware buttons (including most of the ones next to the screen, which were mapped confusingly to arrow keys).
• Aside from being confusing, the software was very rudimentary. The two major activities which would be useful to students (the web browser and text editor) were not actually Sugar applications at all, but standard Linux applications (Firefox and Libreoffice, iirc?) wrapped in their interface. There were very few nontrivial native Sugar activities available.
• The Sugar interface, as designed, had some very strange semantics which were not intuitive, and not reflected well in the user interface. Every activity opened by the user was saved in the filesystem -- even ones which were not useful to save, like web browsers or simple memory games. The OS would automatically discard old activities as necessary to keep storage available -- so recording a long video, for instance, would delete older documents created in the text editor.
• Development on the project had a lot of bizarre priorities. For a time, one major development priority was to build a reverse-engineering suite for the OLPC, so that students could reverse-engineer the mesh networking firmware and develop their own under a free license. Fortunately, I don't think this got to the point of actually being developed.
You're definitely right on that. The hardware took long enough to design, but the software wasn't even done when they started shipping.
> the resistive tablet
For people not familiar with the XO-1, it originally included a weird touchpad. The center third was capacitive, and would work with fingers. The Entire pad was resistive, and would work with a stylus (which was never shipped).
The dual resistive/capacitive was unreliable , and was eventually replaced  with just a capacitive touchpad with the same area as the original touchpad.
> the low-power-mode
This was a real shame to leave out. The OLPC XO-1 includes a specialized display controller  which can drive the display even while the CPU is suspended. THe idea is that the CPU would render one ebook page at a time and sleep between page turns. Unfortunately, the software for this was never implemented. All the rest of the hardware is there; it would have been really cool to have a near-zero-power ebook mode!
> several of the hardware buttons (including most of the ones next to the screen, which were mapped confusingly to arrow keys)
I'm not quite sure what you mean here. All of the keys on the keyboard are mapped . The only ones I can think of which aren't used for much are the progressive dots (F5-F8), which are intended for application-specific use .
The buttons around the screen are mapped to the arrow keys (on the left side) and Home, End, PgUp, and PgDown (on the right side). I really like this, because when you fold the screen around into tablet mode, you can easily navigate a document. Reading a PDF or tall web page this way is a pleasant experience.
> the web browser and text editor were [...] standard Linux applications (Firefox and Libreoffice) [...] wrapped in their interface
You're right. The web browser is Firefox with a bunch of XUL stuff, and the document/text editor is AbiWord.
> The Sugar interface, as designed, had some very strange semantics
The idea behind an OS that journals everything you do with it  is great. All the power of a VCS, applied to everything you do on a computer. Unfortunately, the implementation in the OLPC is crude and severely hardware-restricted.
> development priority was to build a reverse-engineering suite
This is actually kind of funny, but the only mention I could find is in , which is a collective braindump page for software that would be cool to have on the OLPC. Do you have links to any discussion on this?
Well, for some values of "mapped". There are a few buttons on the keyboard that have a defined meaning, but no corresponding software functionality, like the "Bulletin Board" key, as well as the progressive dots that you mentioned.
I think the OLPC software we were using might have been an early version, and hadn't yet started using some of the keys next to the display.
> The idea behind an OS that journals everything you do with it is great.
Sure. But using that as the primary system for data storage was questionable. When I used it, at least, there was very little support for naming and organizing saved activities, or for managing storage. This seems like it'd be a pretty serious obstacle to any sort of serious educational use.
> Do you have links to any discussion on this?
Not offhand. This was ~10 years ago! I think it was on the OLPC wiki somewhere, but it might have been deleted. Or my memory might be faulty. :)
What's probably true in general, though, was that the OLPC/Sugar development team prioritized the development of activities that they thought would be cool or useful, rather than projects which were actually in demand by educators in the target countries.
For what it's worth, I was the OLPC employee working the most on the software for this, and it worked and shipped. I recall that there were serious hardware bugs that went unfixed until XO-1.5 and XO-1.75, but just those two models add up to millions of deployed laptops in the field that were using this CPU-off-screen-on mode when idle. If you've ever seen the power LED off or flashing on an XO while the screen is on, it was using this DCON mode.
One of the positive outcomes of the OLPC project was the "stone soup" effect, in that it inspired many different people and companies to contribute useful ingredients, which could be folded back (or spun out) into other independent projects.
For example, the "tickless kernel" power saving stuff in the Linux kernel that consolidates bunches of non-exact timer wake-ups to all happen at the same time came out of RedHat's work on the OLPC project.
EA released the original SimCity source code for the OLPC, under GPLv3, so it could be ported to other platforms and further developed (under a different name, Micropolis).
Sugar had a long way to go, and wasn't very well documented. They were trying to do too much from scratch, and choose a technically good but not winning platform. It was trying to be far too revolutionary, but at the same time building on top of layers and layers of legacy stack (X11, GTK, GTK Objects, PyGTK bindings, Python, etc).
When I ported the multi player TCL/Tk/X11 version of SimCity to the OLPC, I ripped out the multi player support because it was too low level and required granting full permission to your X server to other players. I intended to eventually reimplement it on top of the Sugar grid networking and multi user activity stuff, but that never materialized, and it would have been a completely different architecture than one X11 client connecting to multiple X11 servers.
Then I made a simple shell script based wrapper around the TCL/Tk application, to start and stop it from the Sugar menus. It wasn't any more integrated with Sugar than that. Of course the long term plan was to rewrite it from the ground up so it was scriptable in Python, and took advantage of all the fancy Sugar stuff.
But since the Sugar stuff wasn't ready yet, I spent my time ripping out TCL/Tk, translating the C code to C++, wrapping it with SWIG and plugging it into Python, then implementing a pure PyGTK/Cairo user interface, without any Sugar stuff, which would at least be a small step in the direction of supporting Sugar, and big step in the direction of supporting any other platform (like the web).
Open Source Micropolis, based on the original SimCity Classic from Maxis, by Will Wright -- PyGTK interface:
Pie Menus on Python/GTK/Cairo for OLPC Sugar, by Don Hopkins.
None of that work would have been possible without the OLPC project, which inspired EA to give SimCity away for free in a way that made it possible to port it to other platforms.
So I believe some good did come out of the OLPC project, including some interesting discussions about constructionist education, visual programming and teaching kids to program, with Alan Kay, Guido van Rossum and others!
HAR 2009 Lightning Talk Transcript: Constructionist Educational Open Source SimCity, by Don Hopkins.
SimCity for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child): Applying Papert's Ideas About Constructionist Education and Teaching Kids to Program:
Alan Kay on Programming Languages:
Alan Kay's ideas about SimCity for OLPC:
Responding to Alan Kay's criticisms of SimCity:
OLPC Visual Programming Language Discussion with Guido van Rossum and Alan Kay:
Discussion with Alan Kay about Robot Odyssey:
Ideas about OLPC SimCity GUI, Turtle Graphics, and Cellular Automata:
Redesigning the SimCity User Interface for the OLPC:
OLPC Visual Programming Languages for Education:
A related question: in your opinion, what were the successes and failures of the OLPC project, what openings and obstacles contributed to that, and where do we go from here?
>Even if we didn't achieve those goals for Sugar, we made progress in the right direction that have their own benefits independent of Sugar.
>Choose your lofty goals so that when projected onto what's actually possible, you still make progress!
OLPC: One Laptop Per Child (XO-1)
Summary by Don Hopkins (dhopkins@DonHopkins.com).
Educational content, games, simulations, learning tools,
eBook, creative writing, journalism.
+ Constructionist learning.
Seymour Papert, Alan Kay.
+ Minimal power consumption, with a design target of 2-3 W
total power consumption.
+ Minimal product cost, with a target of $100 per laptop for
production runs of millions of units.
+ A "cool" look, implying innovative styling in its physical
+ E-book functionality with extremely low power consumption.
+ The software provided with the laptop should be open source
and free software.
+ Designed by Mary Lou Jepsen.
+ 1200x900, 200 dpi, 6x4 inch (152.4x101.6 mm), 6 bits (262k colors).
+ Pixel size 0.127 mm, about 1 arc minute.
+ You can always see 200 dpi grayscale, even in direct sunlight.
+ You can get color from the LED backlight.
+ Colors wash out as the sunlight gets brighter.
+ The backlight uses power (though not nearly as much as cold cathode
+ You can turn the backlight down or off to conserve power.
+ Turning off the backlight tells screen to give slightly higher
resolution, to make reading comfortable.
+ Display Design Goals:
+ Maximize the number hours of ebook reading.
+ Minimize the power consumption.
+ Maximize the resolution and readability.
+ Mesh with how human perception works.
+ Display sharp high quality text, that's easy on the eyes
during the day (reflective) and night (backlight).
+ Critical design innovations:
+ Remove the subtractive color filters that absorb 85% of the light.
+ Replace them with plastic diffraction gratings and lenses,
stamped like DVDs.
+ Much brighter display for a given amount of backlight.
+ Can be manufactured with existing technologies and processes.
+ Uses efficient environmentally friendly LEDs,
instead of fragile, expensive, high voltage, cold cathode
fluorescent lamp backlights.
+ Combination of two separate screens: sharing an LCD glass.
+ One normal backlit screen.
+ Another normal reflective screen.
+ LCD is 1200x900 square grid, with 64 gray levels (6 bits).
+ Off pixels transparent, on pixels opaque.
+ Backlit screen shines through a color filter on the 1200x900 grid.
+ Filter gives each pixel just one color: red, green, blue.
+ Individual grayscale pixels behave like sub-pixels of a normal
+ Reflective screen has reflector behind LCD grid.
+ Room light passes through grayscale LCD and bounces off of back
+ 1200x900 pixels depending on ambient outside light to display.
+ The light the user sees comes from both sources (reflected outside
light plus filtered backlight).
+ Color filters use fresnel prisms to pass most light, instead of
color filters that absorb most light, wasting less energy.
+ The amount of color and perceived resolution depends on backlight
brightness and outside light level.
+ The ambient light level of the room changes the perceived
resolution of the display.
+ In direct sunlight you see the reflective screen (exactly 1200x900,
+ In a dark room you see the backlit screen (approx. 800x600
perceived, 133 dpi),
+ In between you see both (approx. 1024x768 perceived).
+ The "official story" is "1200x900 mono resolution,
693x520 color resolution".
+ Screen layers:
+ LED backlight.
+ 1200x900 grid of color filters (fresnel prisms).
+ Semi-reflective layer.
+ 1200x900 LCD.
+ Each pixel has a single color behind it.
+ Colors are arranged in a diagonal pattern.
+ Each pixel has:
+ Fixed hue (r, g or b).
+ 6 bits (64 gray levels) of luminance.
+ Chrominance depends on relative strength of room light
+ DCON screen driver chip
+ The screen can stay on while the processor is turned off.
+ Automatically interpolates ("swizzles") lower resolution color
pixels, so the unusual screen format is invisible to software.
+ Looks just like a regular 1200x900 color framebuffer to software.
+ DCON has different modes:
+ Color swizzled antialiased.
+ Color swizzled not antialiased.
+ Video pass through.
+ Power saving techniques
+ Uses low power LEDs instead of high voltage cold cathode
+ Turns off processor while leaving the screen and wireless
+ Uses fresnel prisms to split most white light into primary
colors, instead of color filters to throw away most light.
+ Turn down refresh rate.
+ Dynamically turn off sections of the screen.
+ Order of magnitude less power consumption.
+ Designed to use as many environmentally friendly components
+ Fully compliant with EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances
+ One of eight laptops to receive EPEAT's Gold rating for
+ A future version of the OLPC may include a built-in GPS!
+ The OLPC project needs GPS mapping sofware and low resolution
maps, which kids can improve, to map out the areas of the world
where they live.
+ OpenFirmware Forth BIOS loader boot ROMs.
+ Pared-down version of Fedora Linux.
+ Custom web browser based on Gecko engine (xulrunner + Cairo) used
by Mozilla Firefox.
+ Word processor based on AbiWord. Paint program.
+ Email via web based services.
+ Online chat and VoIP programs.
+ Many programming languages:
Smalltalk), Logo (visual), TamTam (visual).
+ Music sequences with digital instruments: Jean Piche's TamTam.
+ Audio and video players.
+ RSS news reader. Calculator.
+ Games: SimCity. Tetris. Connect. Others in development.
+ Educational software and content. Wikipedia.
Internet Archive. E-books. Scanned books. PDF files.
+ Python is the primary programming language for the "Sugar" user
interface and applications.
+ Important Python modules and libraries:
+ Sugar graphical user interface, written in Python, with GTK,
Cairo and Pango.
+ GTK user interface toolkit for X11.
+ Cairo rendering library (hardware accelerated Porter/Duff imaging
model, like PostScript).
+ Great for efficiently drawing high quality antialiased maps
with high quality scalable graphics and text, with hardware
+ Pango international text rendering library.
+ Pygame computer game programming module (graphics, audio,
+ Mozilla xulrunner (Firefox Gecko web browser component).
+ PyXPCOM Python/XPCOM integration module (enables Python and
+ Many other high quality Python modules.
+ Project Status: October 2008
+ About half a million XO-1 units out in the field.
Most are in South America.
+ Afghanistan, Brazil, Cambodia, Columbia (65,000 ordered, 700
pilots), Ethiopia (5,000 shipped), Ghana, Haiti (7,000
shipped), India, Iraq (200 shipped), Mali, Mexico (50,000
ordered), Mongolia (10,000 shipped), Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria
(300 shipped), Niue (500 shipped), Oceania (5000 shipped),
Pakistan, Peru (260,000 ordered, 20,000 shipped), Philippines,
Rwanda (5,000 shipped), Tanzania, Thailand, USA (Alabama
(15,000 ordered), Massachusets, New York, Virgin Islands),
Uraguay (100,000 ordered, 10,000 shipped), Yemen.
+ You can buy an XO-1 on eBay now, for $90-$200.
+ G1G1 program ran last year.
+ G1G1 v2 program in America will be run by Amazon,
starts mid November.
+ A new G1G1 program has been announced for Europe, beginning on
November 17, the same day as the US program starts.
+ The price will be around $399, 312 EUR (no VAT will apply,
only shipping cost).
+ The 27 member states of the EU, plus Switzerland, Russia and
Turkey are included.
+ Where to get them: http://www.amazon.com/xo
+ More info about OLPC Foundation Europe: http://www.olpceu.org
+ Latest Changes
+ The new version of XO-1 has slight revisions to the circuit
board, changing a few things, because parts they are using
going obsolete. Trying not to change it much.
+ Making versions of XO-1 with more RAM and more flash memory.
+ Revamped basic sugar interface.
+ Software support for low power consumption is coming along.
+ New software release is going in the can this week.
+ Suspends when you close the laptop.
+ Turns off WiFi chip while in suspend unless actually on mesh.
+ Will sit in suspend for 2 days, which John timed.
+ User interface for power saving modes.
+ Sugar control panel, extreme power saving mode without WiFi,
saves a watt.
+ Advanced power management mode, goes into suspend when machine
is idle, leaves machine on, powers off CPU.
+ Still has a bunch of bugs around the edges:
+ Sharing over the net, presence service screws up sometimes,
but basically works.
+ Need to figure out how to decide whether a laptop is there
+ Multicast port, machine wakes up when it gets a multicast
it's interested in, but it always wakes up because protocol
does too much milticasting, busy protocol, otherwise the
world thinks laptop goes away.
+ The next version: XO-2
+ The X0-2 exists playdough mockup, looks like paperback with
2 hires multitouch screen, no keyboard.
+ No working hardware for that stuff.
+ Jim Gettys stopped working on other things, and is now working
on full blown multi touch support in X servers.
+ Price target is $75 for the XO-2, but that seems unlikely.
+ Mesh Networking Problems
+ Mesh networking stuff still does not work well.
+ Not using mesh networking in most schools, since it does not
scale to more than 10 laptops.
+ 30 laptops in room all on mesh melt down the network talking
to each other.
+ Can't reliably do TCP on a busy mesh network, because computers
are too busy doing status updates.
+ The problem is complicated with using multicast, which have to
get repeated throughout the mesh.
+ The idea of sticking laptops in a room and they see each other
is a good idea.
+ School servers should put up standard WiFi access points.
+ Mesh networking still useful if small deployment scattered
across whole village.
+ Don't use mesh networking for larger tasks than 10 or 15 laptops.
+ Could improve it with more work.
+ Work should go into getting colaboration protocols (independent
of mesh networking) out into generic Linux world.
+ AbiWord should be able to share across internet to edit the same
+ Windows Compatibility
+ OpenFirmware boot ROMs are now compatible with Windows BIOS,
so it can boot Windows and Linux without reflashing.
+ OLPC is not doing any work on Windows, not shipping Windows.
+ Putting all work into Linux based stuff, everything they are
shipping is free software
+ OLPC will sell laptops to countries that want to run Windows.
+ Countries must worry about it.
+ You can't buy that version of Windows in developed countries.
+ $3 version of Windows not for sale in the US or anywhere people
pay full price for Windows, just the "third world".
+ High Expectations
+ OLPC had to recover from artificially high expectations created
by the fawning press and Nick Negroponte.
+ The high expectations had to come crashing down eventually.
+ The Windows announcement finally casued it to crash down.
+ Only a few hundred in pilot running Windows.
+ All the rest are running Fedora Linux.
+ The community needs to be reminded that OLPC is still a free
+ OLPC is the largest deployment of Fedore anywhere.
+ 500,000 units of Fedore, 50,000 more every month.
+ Two good things have happened to the project in the broader sense:
1) Spawned this whole netbook thing.
+ Nobody was doing that before.
+ Now 15 different major companies are doing the same thing.
+ Finally people are exploring the low cost low power end
of the laptop spectrum.
+ OLPC is still unique in that it was ruggedly designed to be
dropped and survive.
+ Other companies have not figured that out yet, and are still
making cheap low quality laptops.
2) The free software community is widely in favor of the project.
The deal with Microsoft got bad press, and most people in the
free software community mistakenly think the free software part
is over, and OLPC is now shipping laptops with Windows.
But actually they are not.
But I remember being most disappointed about the mesh networking, since that was supposed to be the thing that made the project feasible. I intentionally bought two of these devices just so they could talk to each other -- and they couldn't reliably do so, even with conventional WiFi at their disposal).
I still don't understand why the system performed so poorly, I know a lot of Sugar was written in Python, but there must have been some very fundamental problems with it. Switching to an existing lightweight X window manager was a much better (but still not good) experience.
For example, the icon for each Sugar "activity" was an SVG file. When you started an activity, its icon would "throb" in the center of the screen, fading in and out. Guess how the throbbing was implemented.
That's right, it would perform string substitution on the SVG file, filling in the actual colors for macros embedded in the SVG, then reparse and redisplay the SVG. For each frame.
Had it been a simple matter of being written in Python, Sugar might've been usable. But it was shitty Python and that's what killed it.
I can imagine a path to how they got there:
1. PyGTK (or whatever they were using) has methods to load and display an image.
2. A supported image type is svg+xml
3. SVG is vector graphics. Awesome! Let's use that.
4. Animation is needed, so we consider just ramping the opacity attribute, scaling attribute, etc.
5. We don't have any methods for DOM access. Oops.
6. However, we do have our loaded SVG file which is just plain text.
7. Well, we can just s/OPACITY/RAMP_VALUE or whatever and display that for our animation. That at least doesn't require a read from the harddrive for each frame. :)
Speaking of which-- I've seen developers do animation by repeatedly reading a file from the harddrive in the same process/thread as a realtime audio engine.
The whole thing was madness, all the way down. It's a wonder it worked at all.
The harddrive was flash memory, no? So we're probably talking hundreds of microseconds to read the file into memory. Let's say 670 microseconds for a rough guess.
That still leaves 41 milliseconds to parse and display the file.
Of course the animation is happening at an arbitrary program's load time which is probably particularly CPU heavy. But OLPC apparently had two cores, so the process controlling the SVG animation should have been able to safely hit its deadlines.
I'm going to guess that the animation was smooth when trivial consumer single-process apps were loaded and janky when something like an office application was opened.
Am I right, or was it always janky?
There were no "office" applications for Sugar. The closest it got were Sugarized versions of Firefox and AbiWord. The animation, as I recall, was somewhat jankier when attempting to load one of these.
Now I'm wondering whether the lack of smoothness was actually jank or just the choice to animate at a low frame rate.
The animation looks bad but generally uniform in its timing. So I'm guessing whoever coded that just assumed their method of animation was so klunky that they went ahead and set the delay interval to a large value.
It might have helped to use a retro-style step animation, like filling up a cup a quarter at a time where each 1/4 cup is a lighter shade of the same color.
As bitwize said, not only is Sugar written in Python, but it's also badly written. In one of my other comments in this thread, I mentioned the memory leak  which has been a problem in Sugar since 2013.
Without Sugar, the experience is better. I run dwm in debian, and it works well as long as I don't have any complicated web pages open. 400 MHz i586 and 256 MB of memory is enough to be useful. The keyboard provides ESC and F1-F12. It's just a little, weird-looking laptop with a transflective display.
Fundamental problem identified. I believe the Inferno port tended to run better.
Cool. I hadn't heard about this! It looks like it's being actively maintained on bitbucket, too! 
It looks like someone else also got Plan9 booting on the OLPC .
Was Python chosen as the technology stack by someone inexperienced in developing operating systems?
If you had volunteers on a shoestring budget, you'd simply create a FVWM theme. It would be pretty normal, but with thick borders to compensate for the crude touchpad. You'd patch the program launcher to prevent running more than one thing at a time, thus dealing with the memory constraint and user confusion. That's it. Ship it.
Instead, they wrote a completely experimental desktop environment in an interpreted language. This is not the sort of project you'd bite off with volunteers on a shoestring budget.
I was a volunteer. I told them that stuff was nuts, but the paid staff were on a mission. Nothing could dissuade them. They wouldn't even dogfood. By that, I mean they didn't actually use the laptops. They used high-end developer workstations because the laptops were unusable. That should have been a hint.
Subsequent OS releases fixed most of the software problems, but the project had lost a lot of steam and goodwill by then. (They also lost a lot of goodwill before the release when Microsoft announced that they'd gotten Windows XP to work on the laptop, and the OLPC project announced that it would be available as an alternative to their own linux-based OS. )
As a result of the really, really bad experience with the Give 1 Get 1 campaign, OLPC instituted minimum order quantities of 1000 laptops (or 100 laptops if you ask nicely. The OLPC XO-1.5, a new motherboard for the XO-1 laptop, was also available in minimum quantity 100). The latest version of the laptop, the XO-4, has a gigahertz ARM processor and either 1 or 2 GB of memory. However, there are only 3 ways to get one:
* be in a country or school program that purchased the XO-4
* have a quarter-million dollars to spend on 100 laptops
* convince the OLPC project to give you one so you can develop educational software for it 
If you buy (or hear someone talk about buying) an OLPC laptop, it's almost guaranteed to be an XO-1. Unfortunately, most of the software (including the OS) is now developed against the much more powerful XO-4. This means that the XO-1 is now in a similar state now as it was when it was released -- almost everything is slow, and your precious RAM fills up quickly.
Exemplifying the state of the XO-1 laptop is a memory leak  in Sugar (the desktop UI). On the 1-2GB XO-4, it is not considered a problem:
> The leak has negligible impact on XO-4, XO-1.75 and XO-1.5. On these laptops we recommend that you restart Sugar at least weekly.
In the XO-1, however, idle memory consumption is easily 150 MB, and you can run out of memory in less than one day. The official fix is:
> On the XO-1 we recommend that you restart Sugar every few hours
I feel bad about the whole situation. The OLPC organization seriously tried to make Alan Kay's Dynabook real, and they produced a really cool piece, well-designed piece of hardware. (Not to mention a very well-documented hardware-software pair. ) It's a shame that they got in way over their heads by trying to develop the hardware, develop drivers for the hardware, develop a custom desktop environment, develop child-friendly userspace applications, and sell them in single quantity, defend themselves from critics, and also attract sales contracts from foreign bureaucracies.