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OLPC’s $100 laptop was going to change the world (theverge.com)
235 points by ChrisArchitect on April 16, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 217 comments

I don't know how they fared in 3rd world countries, but before OLPC every laptop was upwards of $800 dollars, if I remember right. There were small low-power laptops akin to OLPC's XO, but you had to pay a premium for those. The concept of a $100 laptop was revolutionary (even though, as I remember, they never really got the price below $200, but still!) and it spawned a whole slew of cheap small commercial laptops (generally called netbooks). Chromebooks are a direct descendant of the XO laptop.

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.

OLPC certainly helped stimulate a push for cheaper laptops. As you say, they most directly live on in Chromebooks--which are at least reasonably successful, especially in education--by way of netbooks.

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.

Not saying it was the biggest reason, but Microsoft was supposed to kill Windows XP around that time, and it went back on its decision when netbooks started appearing on the market. Windows Vista and even Windows 7 weren't very adequate for those machines performance-wise, but they thrived on Windows XP.

> 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.

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.

I believe they used Pixel Qi displays, which were transreflective. I love transreflective displays due to their ability to use ambient light to save power but since the colors don't 'pop' with these and the side-lighting creates uneven lighting, they never seem to get traction. My Sharp Zaurus SL5500 and Garmin Vivosmart HR have these displays and I love the battery life that accompanies them. Edit: Additionally, for a while Pixel Qi made their ~10" (1024x600) display available as a retrofit for netbooks, probably around 2012 or so if I recall.

> Sharp Zaurus SL5500

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.

> Are there any laptops available that have this feature now?

Nope. At one point, there were two netbooks that could have an off-the-shelf [0] pixel qi display fitted into them [1].

> 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.

[0] https://www.adafruit.com/product/1303

[1] https://www.engadget.com/2010/07/19/how-to-install-pixel-qis...

Onyx eReaders are quite fancy, runs android, has pencil support, still pricey tho:


What you want is a laptop with an e-ink display. There isn't one AFAIK. The refresh rate is one big limitation. One could design a laptop specifically for writing and reading but it would be pretty special purpose. As I recall, the CTO of OLPC went off to try to make a display with e-ink characteristics that would be more suitable for laptops but wasn't able to bring anything to market.

It was an LCD display with near-retina resolution and a transflective screen. It could be backlit, but when it wasn't backlit, ambient light was enough to illuminate the display to readable levels.

PixelQi got as far as building working prototypes that could be installed in ordinary laptops, but no takers from the laptop industry.

There were few devices that offered them but never mainstream. Here is a snapshot of their page from 2014 that lists some of their partners: https://web.archive.org/web/20140228171904/http://pixelqi.co... - mostly industrial applications and one Android tablet [1].

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_tablet

Indeed she did try to make a business out of those displays:


You can still buy the Pixel Qi screens today, through a company called Tripuso:


To be clear, the XO's display was not e-ink. It was regular frontlit LCD with a fast refresh rate. The downside was that the backlit mode never looked very good indoors. If someone could fix that problem I bet we'd have that screen on every portable device.

> "It was regular frontlit LCD with a fast refresh rate."

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.

No, it really didn't. And reflective outdoors looked even worse. In the shade, it was washed out and the colors were wrong. In the sun, it looked like a bizarre black-and-white rendition of something where, if you concentrated, you could guess what it was trying to display.

With a lot more development time maybe they could have fixed the problems. Maybe.

Did you switch modes? There was a mode switch.

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.

There was not a mode switch, at least not on my OLPC. You switched from color to B&W by turning the backlight brightness all the way down (thus shutting off the backlight).

That was a mode switch.

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.

Yeah, I would gladly take an e-ink display or a frontlit lcd. Either one would be great. The closest I've found to what I'm after is the Freewrite typewriter, which is stupid expensive.

"Chromebooks are a direct descendant of the XO laptop."

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.

There was a whole push for netbooks like the Asus EEE PC that happened around the same time as the original XO.

Yep, I had both an XO and an EEE in that order. The look on the university help desk tech's face when I brought the XO (running puppy Linux at the time) in to get a network cert install was fun. I recall moving from the XO to the EEE mainly because the latter was faster and more pleasant to type on. There were few other competing net books at the time.

Then "direct descendants" is just a poor choice of words for describing an entirely different relationship.

If nothing else, I would say that chromebooks are a spiritual descendant of the OLPC. Inexpensive laptops with simple software marketed heavily towards education.

Totally agree. The OLPC didn't fail if the goal was to lower the price of laptops. I would think it inspired the Chromebook.

I still have mine, but I haven't pulled it out in quite a while. It was quite slow, but I remember it using it fondly and really liked the sugar UI (https://sugarlabs.org/). My kids were very young and we had fun messing around with it (there was a nifty audio application that I remember). Another thing I remember about it was the security system, bitfrost, which seemed well thought out. It also had LEDs wired into the mic and camera so you knew when they were listening/watching. I'd really like to see that in other laptops.

This sums up my experience, too. My only real use for it ended up being for weekend/day trips where I didn't need to work and wanted to be quasi-offline but might want to connect to a third-party wifi system (like a motel's) for some light internet browsing.

Anybody still doing anything useful or interesting with theirs?

One of my friends brings either an OLPC or an Alphasmart to Burning Man every year.

In one of my other comments in this thread, I mentioned that I used my olpc to animate this logo [0] and to make a patch adding a dodecahedron to the X.org utility ico [1].

[0] http://bloominglabs.org/index.php/Logo#Animated_Logo

[1] https://linux.die.net/man/1/ico

I miss the Alphasmart stuff. They always felt like the spiritual successor to the TRS-80 Model 100 which was an amazing writing machine for its day.

There is a huge history of how much aid has hurt African countries[0].

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.

[0]: https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Aid-Working-Better-Africa/dp/037...

I would recommend GiveDirectly. They give can, not phones, but for any family whose first priority is a phone, they'll get a phone. Others might get a roof first, to deal with leaks leading to sleepless nights, or proper flooring to deal with parasites that live in dirt floors; both of these are problems with major impacts on educational outcomes, which individual families will know they need to deal with. And families that have those needs met will almost certainly go in for a phone or two.

> I do like the premise of Zuckerberg's Internet.org project. I think that access to Wikipedia in particular should be a right

Until February 2018, Wikipedia had a similar zero-rating program called Wikipedia Zero [0].

> [Wikipedia] (along with Kindles) as being the path towards creating a Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy for everyone

The WikiReader [1] tried to get even closer to this -- a physical Wikipedia device. Too bad it failed commercially, it was another really nifty gadget.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_Zero

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WikiReader

At www.symmitree.com we will be giving 1m refugees free, decent quality, biometric smartphones and access to key apps/dapps next year with a plan of making these phones free for anyone who wants them a few years after. We will be announcing full details of the mechanisms behind this in June.

I am a big fan and consider it to have been a success, though not what Negroponte hoped for. Back in 2006 I helped them out (they even gave me a machine as thanks) but the advice I gave them was ignored. I told them at least Brazil and India (and probably other countries) would insist on making them locally instead of importing from China and that if the children themselves could make their own computers it would be even better (see Raspberry Pi and 3D printed cases). I also told them I had experience with children and they normally hated trackpads, preferring (in order) mice, big trackballs, the IBM rubber thing and joysticks instead. The first time a child ever saw a XO-1 was when they were about to ship and wanted to prove that a kid could take it apart and put it back together.

"if the children themselves could make their own computers it would be even better (see Raspberry Pi and 3D printed cases)"

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 played with one back when it was just launched. Besides the innovative outdoor-friendly display it was an insanely bad experience. MIT Media Lab (and with that I mean Nicholas Negroponte) gone crazy.

The UX (both keyboard and software) was .. just awful.

Any chance you could comment further on this? What in particular made it bad?

I'm not the parent, but I bought two OLPCs back in the day in the "Give One, Get One" program.

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.

I worked with the OLPC in university (not MIT). I can confirm your findings, and additionally:

• 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.

> The hardware was not designed in conjunction with the software

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 [0], and was eventually replaced [1] 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 [2] 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 [3]. 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 [4].

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 [5] 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 [6], 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?

[0] https://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/0.90/Notes#OLPC_XO-1_touchpad_...

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20160825191424/http://lists.lapt...

[2] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/DCON

[3] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Keyboard

[4] https://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Human_Interface_Guidelines/The...

[5] http://www.loper-os.org/?p=249

[6] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Software_ideas#Technology

> I'm not quite sure what you mean here. All of the keys on the keyboard are mapped.

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.

> Unfortunately, the software for [the low-power DCON mode] was never implemented.

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.

I worked on making the Read activity usable in book mode (keyboard folded away, but gamepad buttons usable), and I vaguely recall putting in an ioctl to put the CPU to sleep after you turned a page, but I'm not sure if my changes made it in.



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).

Sugar was written in Python and built on top of PyGTK, which necessitated buying into a lot of "stuff". On top of that, it used other Python modules and GTK bindings like Cairo for imaging, Pango for text, etc. All great industrial strength stuff. But then it had its own higher level Hippo canvas and user interface stuff on top of that, which never really went anywhere (for good reason: it was complex because it was written for PyGTK in a misshapen mish-mash of Python and C with the GTK object system, instead of pure simple Python code -- hardly what Alan Kay thinks of as "object oriented programming"). And for browser based stuff there were the Python bindings to xulrunner, which just made you yearn for pure JavaScript without all the layers of adaptive middle-ware between incompatible object systems.

The problem is that Sugar missed the JavaScript/Web Browser boat (by arriving a bit too early, or actually just not having enough situational awareness). Sugar should have been written in JavaScript and run in any browser (or in an Electron-like shell such as xulrunner). Then it would be like a Chromebook, and it would benefit from the enormous amount of energy being put into the JavaScript/HTML platform. Python and GTK just hasn't had that much lovin'.

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: https://github.com/SimHacker/micropolis/tree/master/Micropol...

Pie Menus on Python/GTK/Cairo for OLPC Sugar, by Don Hopkins. http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/128

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. http://micropolisonline.com/static/documentation/HAR2009Tran...

SimCity for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child): Applying Papert's Ideas About Constructionist Education and Teaching Kids to Program: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/129

Alan Kay on Programming Languages: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/132

Alan Kay's ideas about SimCity for OLPC: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/134

Responding to Alan Kay's criticisms of SimCity: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/135

OLPC Visual Programming Language Discussion with Guido van Rossum and Alan Kay: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/137

Discussion with Alan Kay about Robot Odyssey: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/139

Ideas about OLPC SimCity GUI, Turtle Graphics, and Cellular Automata: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/141

Redesigning the SimCity User Interface for the OLPC: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/142

OLPC Visual Programming Languages for Education: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/143

SimCity Rules: http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/145

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? https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11942313

>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!

Here are some technical notes I wrote up about the OLPC XO-1 and its unique display and hardware, problems and successes, etc, back around November 2008:


OLPC: One Laptop Per Child (XO-1)

Summary by Don Hopkins (dhopkins@DonHopkins.com).

+ Mission

  + Education. 
    Educational content, games, simulations, learning tools, 
    programming languages.
  + Literacy. 
    eBook, creative writing, journalism.
  + Constructionist learning. 
    Seymour Papert, Alan Kay.
+ Goals of the XO-1 Hardware Design:

  + 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. 
+ Display

  + 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. 
    (reflective layer)
  + 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
    fluorescent backlight).
  + 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 
    backlit display. 

  + 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, 
    200 dpi),
  + 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 
        to backlight.

  + 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:
      + Monochrome.
      + Color swizzled antialiased.
      + Color swizzled not antialiased.
      + Video pass through.

  + Power saving techniques
    + Uses low power LEDs instead of high voltage cold cathode 
      fluorescent backlights. 
    + Turns off processor while leaving the screen and wireless 
      network on. 
    + 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.
+ Green Electronics

  + Order of magnitude less power consumption. 
  + Designed to use as many environmentally friendly components 
    as possible. 
  + Fully compliant with EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances 
    Directive (RoHS). 
  + One of eight laptops to receive EPEAT's Gold rating for 
    environmental performance.

  + 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.
+ Software

  + 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:
    + Python, JavaScript, Forth, Csound, eToys (visual, Squeak 
      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, 
      input, etc). 
    + Mozilla xulrunner (Firefox Gecko web browser component).
    + PyXPCOM Python/XPCOM integration module (enables Python and 
      JavaScript to script the browser, share objects and call each 
    + 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 
	  or not.
	+ 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 
      software project. 
    + OLPC is the largest deployment of Fedore anywhere.
      + 500,000 units of Fedore, 50,000 more every month.

  + Successes
    + 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.

Your review is probably much more honest than mine... The potential was awesome. I forgot about all the promises that were never fulfilled. Remember when they promised that the super wide touchpad would be resistive touch and you would be able to use a stylus and write on it? Would have been cool, but I don't think that ever happened either.

Oh yeah, I remember that too. That one always felt to me like something they couldn't deliver on (just like the hand crank -- which admittedly, that one they did tell everyone would be dropped before they ordered).

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 think OLPC should have stayed in demo mode for longer, or focused getting an educational environment that could run ontop of existing PCs. They had a good vision, but the execution either fell short. I would no rather see OLPC concepts built into Chromebooks. I still high hopes for self directed constructivism that leverages low cost computing; after using an OLPC for a little bit I lost luster for the concrete implementation. !BUT! OLPC did spawn netbooks (Asus EEEPC) and then Chromebooks which can be had for nearly the targeted OLPC price point. Chromebooks need better offline modes of operation.

I had one back in the day, and it was the worst computing experience I can remember. The keyboard was like what you'd find on a speak-and-spell, and the system had the performance of a low-end 486 under heavy swap.

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.

Sugar wasn't just written in Python. Parts of it were literally coded in the worst way possible. We're talking Daily WTF levels.

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.

> 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.

That's intriguing!

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.

Edit: clarification

I uh...I don't remember for sure, but I can't guarantee that the Sugar code didn't reload the SVG file from disk for each frame.

The whole thing was madness, all the way down. It's a wonder it worked at all.

At 24 FPS that gives you a total of 41.67 milliseconds to fetch the file from the harddrive, parse it, and display it.

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?

It was never smooth, I don't think it ever ran at 24 fps. But the throbbing was slow enough you didn't notice.

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.

I checked out a few youtube videos like this one[1].

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.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdUSpkghdA4

The keyboard is probably a lot nicer to use if you can fit all of your fingers on it. (I usually use my IBM model M with my XO-1 laptops.) Also, the newer models are available with a chiclet-style keyboard.

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 [0] 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.

> 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.

Fundamental problem identified. I believe the Inferno port tended to run better.

> 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! [0]

It looks like someone else also got Plan9 booting on the OLPC [1].

[0] https://bitbucket.org/inferno-os/inferno-os/

[1] http://gsoc.cat-v.org/people/ameya/blog/2007/08/19/1_Plan9_K...

As much as I like Python for data analysis, I do not understand why a very high level language was chosen to write a GUI window manager.

Was Python chosen as the technology stack by someone inexperienced in developing operating systems?

The little I played with it, I remember lots of random UI stuff built by different teams put together haphazardly, and a button press would sometimes take seconds to show a result on the screen... basically what you'd expect from an alpha product put together by volunteers on a shoestring budget.

I think the problem started out the other way, with way too much budget. They bit off more than they could chew. The budget cuts happened later.

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.

How selfish and arrogant. They should have been using the system and testing the system with end users as often as possible with the goal of shipping a totally functional 1.0 by a fixed date. Look at the totally baked systems with long lifetimes (C64, 512k Mac, Apple 2e) in the education space. OLPC was too ambitious with not enough clarity.

The software for the initial public release of the OLPC was very rushed. The organization received so many small orders that they took people off of software development in order to process orders. These laptops were shipped (often months late) with beta-quality software. Beta-quality software was a terrible experience on a 400MHz machine with 0.25GB of memory -- there were no resources to spare.

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. [0])

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 [1]

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 [2] 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. [3][4]) 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.

[0] https://tech.slashdot.org/story/08/05/15/2320243/microsoft-a...

[1] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Developers_Program

[2] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Release_notes/13.2.9#Sugar_Memory_...

[3] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/XO-1/Software_specification

[4] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Hardware_specifications

Good explanation. The common phrase is "boiling the ocean", and seems to happen to a lot of organisations populated by bright, but inexperienced people.

I don't think that OLPC failed, it was just superseded by the smartphone and the tablet.

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.

It's great to read the ongoing stories from the boots-on-the-ground still doing the actual deployments: http://planet.laptop.org

Unfortunately as the project loses momentum these types of stories are dwindling; here's one example from the aggregator:


OLPC is certainly history now and Sugar Labs, while still active, is struggling to keep Sugar relevant.

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!

It was a pretty nifty little device for its time, I used one as my main laptop for a while but it was super duper slow my raspberry pi3 smokes it. It would be so cool if they released that same form factor as a device that you plug your pi into. The actual industrial design was fantastic I would love the same housing to turn my pi into a little laptop.

Have you seen this? https://pi-top.com/

I don't know how it compares to OLPC, but it's basically what you're describing.

As shams93 said, the OLPC has tremendous industrial design, which nothing else I've ever seen matches. The plastic pieces are remarkably thick, and they all either slide or screw together. There are no sharp corners on the exterior. The textured surface is easy to hold and resists scratching and gouging. The latches are simple, durable, double as port covers, and are adorable. When closed, a series of ridges going all the way around the lid meet in to the body to keep dirt, dust, bugs, etc. from being smeared all over the screen. The screen is rubber shock-mounted. You only need one tool to disassemble the entire laptop. It has a friggin' handle. The lithium-iron phosphate batteries are much more durable than other laptop batteries [0]. And it also has the glorious sunlight-readable display.

The pi-top is only very superficially what shams93 describes.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium_iron_phosphate_battery

We have one of those. It sucks. The battery charge controller is garbage and will drain the battery after a couple of days even when the Pitop is turned off. The keyboard is horrible and the (single touch) touchpad is worse. Screen is alright but low resolution.

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.

Hmm, the case looks quite brittle and fragile (e.g. I don't see rubberised bumpers, etc.). Plus the keyboard has a whole bunch of vulnerable moving parts.

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.

Indeed. I have three XO-1 from the original G1G1 program, and my small kids love them. They are at this point a little difficult for the kids to use due to slow UI response, degraded touchpad accuracy, lack of limits on objects created in the physics program, text to speech program, etc.

I have been looking for and would eagerly buy a Rasberry PI retrofit kit if someone makes one.

I'd just like to share a story from XKCDB, the chatlog of XKCD's IRC channel. http://www.xkcdb.com/10124

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

I had an OLPC and lived with somebody who worked on the OLPC project at the time.

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.

You had to be the right kind of poor to be able to buy the OLPC. They were not very interested in selling domestically in the US (except for that buy 2 get 1 offer). Chromebooks and cellphones hit the price point now, and don't require an NGO.

Yep. I was helping the project as a volunteer, and the refusal to help America's poor really offended me. Americans were treated as a source of funding. I always got a sense that exotic cultures/languages/peoples/countries were adored, while plain old ordinary poor Americans were considered unworthy. You couldn't just buy an OLPC XO-1 at Walmart for $185, which was about what the devices actually cost. Instead it cost you $400. Parts suppliers hated this too; they gave good pricing because they were promised high volume.

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...

Your mention of the poor touchpad accuracy really brought the frustration back to me. That may have been the single biggest issue that drove me to stop using mine. It's a shame, the XO had so much potential, but the problems you mention doomed it. Much like the Aptera electric car around the same time (off topic, but that was a similarly bold product that ultimately failed by a death of 1000 bad design decisions despite a lot of good ones).

> They were not very interested in selling domestically in the US

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.

> to public education bodies.

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.

Specifically, their stated policy for most of the time they were actively making deals was that it was exclusively for national ministries of education, for use in primary and secondary education, and even after they adopted more flexibility, that was still the main focus.

Sorry for being a small tribe, but if that was their stated goal then I guess it had no real use for me or mine. It would be nice if some folks would take into account their own backyard.

"There’s surprisingly little hard data about the long-term impact of OLPCs on childhood education"

For a project that was literally an educational experiment, that's pretty damning.

Interesting story I always think of related to the OLPC. We had someone from the project give a presentation to our local LUG, brought in by the excellent Jonathan Corbet of LWN.

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 heard that there was an even more evocative death behind the hand crank idea: Kofi Annan was demoing the prototype laptop with attached hand crank in public, and the crank broke apart from the laptop while he was turning it.

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.

I was very bummed that h g1g1 xo didn't come with a pullcord generator. I thought it was a great idea.

A friend of mine bought an XO-1 via the buy one give one program.

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.

I had one which I got a "normal" distro running on. It was slow, but a bit better than Sugar, though it couldn't do any of the fun mesh-networking etc. Lots of the most interesting ideas for the OLPC never quite shipped, like the keycombo in to 'view-source' of the app you were in, which would let you hack on the UI nondestructively[1].

1: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/OLPC_Human_Interface_Guidelines/Th...

Charity can't beat profit-driven companies if there is a market. There was a market, so smartphones emerged ... and the OLPC is hopelessly outclassed.

capitalism takes with one hand and gives with the other

It is a typical case of 1st world people thinking they know what 3rd world people need/want. Like the mythical $25 phone that nobody nowhere actually wants.

OLPC was a huge success. But not the way Negroponte expected.

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.

>After he outlined a dramatic (and ultimately metaphorical) plan to drop tablets out of helicopters...

"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."


I find the failure list dispiriting. Because of what I think it says about the critics more than the critique. I still feel by intent and outcome it's more victory than failure. People learned things, including kids. Negroponte and everyone else should celebrate trying, if not fully succeeding.

This is judging the Newton by the iPad. It's judging stallman by torvalds. It's judging CDE by KDE

Everywhere and nowhere. I thought they helped inspire the current round of affordable computers (chromebooks, phones, cheap laptops, pi, etc)?

Indeed it did. The XO started a wave a new, cheap computing that saw the Asus EEE PC 401 as the start of commercial products in this new category, and really got going with tablet computers around 2010.


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.

World education is gradually improving! It's a combination of processes of human development and technological aids. Rather than look for a complete solution, I look for whether the situation is improving. Because it's true that most peoples' lives are still depressingly non-optimal!

For example this graph of literacy over the last 25 years (under the heading "Regional Disparities"):


...did they solve the Internet connectivity problem? Did their mesh network thing ever work?

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?!

> Did their mesh network thing ever work?

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 [0], and part of the deployment process is to select what collections will be on the laptops [1]. Here [2] is a listing of the collections on the default English release.

[0] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Collections

[1] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Deployment_Guide_2011/Purchase_Agr...

[2] http://alexvh.me/share/olpc-library-listing.txt

In this decade, there's Endless Mobile. Also attempted to compete with commodity hardware, with similar results. Now apparently redefining mission to software-only: a distro for commodity PC hardware.



To be fair this decade real attempt was the RaspberryPi and it turned out incredibly well.

OLPC had an Open Firmware Forth bootloader. True? False?

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?

> OLPC had an Open Firmware Forth bootloader. True? False?

True. [0]

> 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 [1] and here [2].

Your other questions appear to be more speculative and less specific to OLPC, so I can't answer them.

[0] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Open_Firmware

[1] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Bitfrost

[2] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Activation_and_Developer_Keys

I got one on the buy one, give one initiative; and being cheap was only a plus, but it was great for it's purpose; as a kid's laptop.

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?

How old is your kid?

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.

He's just 4, so a rugged device is a must. Also, one of the great things about these laptops was that they felt like a learning device, without sacrificing the general purpose computing aspect. Since I would like to avoid a consumer device, this is what I'm expecting.

This pi-top seems like what I want, I need to check if it works with another board.

Was pretty excited at the pi-top on first glance, but, $319 for what's basically a screen and a clamshell enclosure to the Pi? Yikes. Surely we can do better. The Superbook is a clamshell laptop powered by your smartphone and costs half that.[0]


Thanks, that seems pretty much what I'm looking for. Any experience with the device? I would like to run it with another board to support a more free approach (at least whatever is possible in the sorry state of SBC)

I recommend used thinkpad X-series laptops.

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.

Not a recommendation, but kano is a cute raspberry pi kit.

How about an XO-1?


> Designers dropped the feature almost immediately after Negroponte’s announcement, because the winding process put stress on the laptop’s body and demanded energy that kids in very poor areas couldn’t spare.

Err, kids in poor areas have less ability to turn a handle than those in wealthy areas?

I think the key element missing here is the lack of infrastructure to support technology. I wonder if this would have been more successful if coupled with something like Project Loon.

John Perry Barlow with an OLPC XO-1 Children's Computer.


I have an extra one that still works. If anyone is interested in it, please let me know. I will send it to you if you pay for shipping.

I'd like it.

This article's tone and framing is negative and about failure, but imho this is just a weird capitalist winner-take-all notion of success. The numbers in the article show that millions of units were shipped and you can pretty clearly infer that tens of millions of children had access to a computer they otherwise wouldn't have. As someone who's childhood access to an apple2e was a massive privilege and advantage, I know damn well if I was one of those tens of millions of kids I'd be better off for it.

So this "failure" seems to have helped millions, learned a bunch and developed some OSS. I should hope to fail so hard myself someday.

I think nowadays you could make a laptop with a solar panel on it's back. That'd be pretty cool.

Lost and forgotten in favour of more expensive laptops. The same applies to Android One/Go

The real reason why OLPC failed is that children in downtrodden countries don't need a laptop. They need food, a healthy environment, good old fashioned classroom education and plenty of pens and notebooks. A laptop is the worst tool you can use for studying.

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.

I thought it was crap, too, until I read:

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.

So... do you need a laptop for that or an eReader?

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.

If you ignore the question of whether an eReader is something with an eInk display, an eReader is just a general-purpose computing device that has for some reason been limited to reading books, so "do you need a laptop or an eReader" doesn't seem to me to be a terribly meaningful question.

The difference is a laptop is custom built, with the required infrastructure to serve the role of a general purpose computing device.

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 was unaware of ka lite, but this looks like exactly something I was looking for. Thanks for the information!

A super rugged ereader, waterproof with solar panels on the back and pre-loaded with Wikipedia and other useful educational resources.

I'd find that useful. I'm sure people/kids in developing countries would too.

that would be nice.

> do you need a laptop for that or an eReader?

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.

Is the Kindle profitable on its own? I thought it was sold at cost or at a loss with the expectation it would lead to more profitable ebook sales.

Amazon's kindle ereaders are sold with a thin profit. (I don't think that the average kindle owner purchases enough books that they generate significant revenue after IP costs are subtracted.)

[0] https://www.forbes.com/sites/kellyclay/2012/10/12/amazon-con...

[1] https://www.npr.org/2012/09/06/160697501/new-amazon-kindle-w...

"So... do you need a laptop for that or an eReader?"

Strangely enough the first kindle e-reader was released the same month as the XO laptop:


E-readers would be good if they were robust enough. All the trials using ereaders so far have shown that current devices aren't nearly robust enough, nor repairable enough, to be useful.

E-readers also suck for figures and formulas which are indispensable for any comprehensive education. The most readable textbooks can only be rendered on a big high-res display, on iPad at least.

Cheap 10" tablets are definitely easier to make than cheap 10" E-readers, though.

> So... do you need a laptop for that or an eReader?

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.

> 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.)

I doubt it. Have a look at these prices[0]. 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.

[0] https://www.amazon.in/Books-NCERT/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A97...

Have you ever tried to ship 100 books? Last time I tried to ship 2 cookbooks across the US it was nearly $30 for just shipping. I would much rather ship a laptop and a power solution.

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'm not sure either comparison is easy to make. With 100 books, you can provide for 100 people at once. A laptop can't do that. And in 20 years, how many of those books will continue to be providing information compared to the laptop?

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.

You wouldn't ship the books, you would buy them locally. Most developing countries have local manufacture of books, or at least small scale traders who will import the books and resell locally. This would also boost the local economy a bit.

For reference, I buy my niece some nice books for $1 each. These last the who year and are available everywhere.

Media mail? Were they 25 pounds each?

Media mail is subsidized.


Source: Have ever shipped something via the USPS.

Or https://www.usps.com/ship/mail-shipping-services.htm

Have you clicked the link in my comment? Delivery of books is cheap in third world countries. OLPC was not targeting American students!

Also, you don't buy 100 books at once. A year in school will need about 10 books. Send the next 10 next year.

My local library and schools constantly emphasize that reading your kid 1000 books before they are 5 is a key to success. (I suspect they are mistaking correlation for causation, but I have never checked)

You are right that the $100 robust laptop didn't exist and still doesn't.

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.

Dude you are reading that comment a bit to literally. Internet can easily supply one with information equivalent to hundreds or thousands of books. Paper can obviously not match that.

Not to mention that, even without internet, the OLPC XO-1 ships with bunches of stuff already on it.

Here's a directory dump from one of mine: https://alexvh.me/share/olpc-library-listing.txt

> A laptop is the worst tool you can use for studying.

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.

Technology is a distraction in the classroom. I regret even the minimal presence of technology when I was in school, aside from computer science 'lab' work.

What about for people like me and very likely many here...

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.

Well spake

I don't agree with this sentiment. Semantics aside (pens and paper are considered technology whether you like it or not), technology is what you make of it. If you can apply said technology to be more productive in class, then allow yourself to take full advantage of that. 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.

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.

I don't agree with this sentiment

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?

I agree that for the vast majority of kids out there, study technology interferes with learning. I originally thought we were talking about college education rather than primary/secondary education, which was my mistake.

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 agree that for the vast majority of kids out there, study technology interferes with learning. I originally thought we were talking about college education rather than primary/secondary education, which was my mistake.

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.

Of course technology can make learning better. I'm pretty sure smart boards would help your average American classroom. But the target for OLPC was Africa, where the classroom itself may not exist. If there is a classroom, maybe there isn't a simple black board. If that's there, maybe the students don't have stationery. Maybe they have to share a book between 50 students.

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.

There are specific needs that need to be met first. A kid who lacks the basics will not get anything from education. However most kids have the basics, the question is how to get them more.

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's often a distraction in the classroom, but it's also a very valuable tool for studying.

It seems really reasonable to have laptops off during instruction periods, have them on for some labs, and use them to help with homework.

> Technology is a distraction in the classroom.

Pencils, paper, white/blackboards, books, chairs, desks, walls, windows, electric lighting, HVAC systems, and even clothing are all “technology”.

Yes, but I think we're all intelligent enough to understand what the parent means.

Yeah I always hated it when my teacher would use an overhead projector, slides or GASP a video!

I think everyone on Hacker News can agree that Technology Is The Worst (tm)

Your argument is: "I have done x in the past and I turned out fine, so x must be the best path in the future".

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.

My argument is not that. My argument is that you feed bread, rice and meat to a starving person. Not cake and pizza. The first requirement to improve students' life is to ensure they have adequate books, stationery, good teachers and food. Laptops come a bit later.

I don't think anyone seriously argues that kids should receive laptops over food.

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).

You're conflating two different problems. OLPC was never meant to replace food (or other necessities).

Additionally, having a dictionary, spell checker and encyclopedia at your fingertips make a laptop a great addition to a classroom.

It was meant to be an analogy.

Books, stationery; need to be stored properly to protect them from climate and insects. Need to be protected from unscrupulous adults who desire fire tinder.

Solar-charged laptops can be weather-sealed and are much less useful for unintended destructive uses.

The OLPC XO-1 was very effective for extremely 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.

I think the idea of the OLPC was just ahead of its time. A good live teacher will likely always be able to provide higher quality education, but at some point recorded lectures and adaptive learning software will be adequate and more cost effective than the average live teacher who can only teach a few dozen students at a time. If the alternative is no or low quality education then certainly that would be preferable.

I'm wondering if there's any evidence that classroom education in the First World has benefited from laptops.

Any peer-reviewed studies on a grade school computer-based curricula out there?

I always use this analogy: how/have hammers in the classroom benefited education. Once we divorce ourselves from the baggage of wanting to "prepare kids of the future" we can be more objective.

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.

The general programmability of a graphing calculator has been important for a subset of students.

I think the problem is that the tech gets implemented by general subject teachers, often without proper support (in UK).

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.

I disagree with the sentiment that because you can study without a laptop, giving the students laptops is pointless. There is a lot of value in becoming familiar with modern technology and learning computer-related skills.

Paper books are expensive to print, warehouse, and ship.

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.

No. Paper books for schoolchildren are extremely cheap[0]. They work without power. They work even after getting a bit wet. They work even if you sit on them. You can highlight and underline stuff on the pages. You can share it easily. You can even take small notes on the books. You can do exercises right on the book. You can take photocopies easily. There is simply no competition.

[0] https://www.amazon.in/Books-NCERT/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A97...

The OLPC has most of the characteristics you ascribe to books:

* 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 [0] on one of my OLPC XO-1 laptops. I also developed a patch for ico [1] 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.)

[0] http://bloominglabs.org/index.php/Logo#Animated_Logo

[1] https://linux.die.net/man/1/ico

While printing is cheap, the licensing of the content often is not and can vary from country to country.

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.

Licence costs aren't an inherent advantage of 'digital' distribution over paper, though.

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.

Correct, but do student need thousands of books. Maybe 20-30 per year?

An individual student may only need 20-30 books a year, but after about 4th grade each student needs different books. They may not even know what books they need far enough in advance to get it.

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.

Currently working in the EdTech space - I have read figured like ~1.9 million new teachers are needed to teach all the students not receiving an education.

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.

That sounds reasonable. So with the OLPC's (pie-in-the-sky) design lifetime of 10 years, maybe it should be compared to 200-300 books.

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.

> (pie-in-the-sky) design lifetime of 10 years

I'm more optimistic about this than you seem to be. The OLPC XO-1 has a lithium-iron phosphate battery [0], 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.

[0] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Hardware_specification#Battery

All these licensing concerns exist in developed economies.

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.

I have travelled to India and bought books there. Amazon India is super affordable too. Not to mention the ongoing book piracy that is rampant in countries including India.

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.

>They work without power

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.

Western textbooks, especially those which are mandatory to get for certain college classes are expensive, but that’s because of the IP and the small market. Best selling paperback books are already much cheaper per page. If you don’t take copy right into account, which you didn‘t do for the laptop either and also skim on paper and print quality, which is fair enough when comparing to the OLPC, then books are dirt cheap. How cheap you can go in third world countries, I don’t know, but even our student union in Germany was selling self printed lecture scripts with good quality and a hundred pages and more for about 50 cents.

It costs about 0.5 cents per book to "print" 3,000 books to a retail-priced SD card, so paper books are still expensive by comparison. The only way paper is close to competitive is if the kids only get access to a couple of books, which is dumb if we're ignoring licensing.

The only thing I can think of is give a man a fish/fishing pole to this comment. It's been said billion times over, but 2017-2018 is the year of Africa. You will see in the coming years React software development shops pop up in Africa like we saw in Pakistan, India. That being said, I don't think it's $100 laptops, its $1000 laptops.

... 2017-2018? As in... last year and this year?

This is such a common problem in our industry, we see technology as the answer to every problem. You can see it here, some article will raise and issue and there will be a dozen posts suggesting an app for that. I guess there is some truth to that aphorism that if your only tool is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.

What they really need is a Chinese smartphone running android for $50 ...

The article talked about children preferring smartphones but also that they are less ruggedized and break more easily. In this regard OLPC is a success.

Or a tablet for a similar price. This basically serves the same purpose as an OLPC but with a much bigger ecosystem and economies of scale.

If they need food, clothing or furniture. why not give them practical courses such as gardening/farming, sewing, woodwork.

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.

They already are learning that from the adults in their life. If they want to get beyond they need to do something different. There are two choices: experiment and see what works, or learn from others. The latter is much easier - IF you can find out what others have done. There are many modern farming methods that could apply well to the village garden, but there are subtle things that have to be got just right or it will be a failure just like the adults in the village warn you. The kids who can read have a much better chance trying the right experiment in the village garden and getting a good harvest, while those who seem to try the same thing without reading first are likely to make one of those small mistakes that ruin the harvest and fail the experiment.

you're right, learning an basic arithmetic would obviously be something to teach then but also with some practical skills (how school used to be for the west)

...Porque no los dos?

Then they should have spent $200.

Good job. Now we can start having a conversation of what our children are really worth!

Do I hear a $300? Or is that all we got?

I learned BASIC at school writing programs in my notebook... Much powerful way to learn not only having to write the program, but also having to run it in your mind. Of course once at home I could write the source and run it in the actual computer at least.

The hope was that we could export a lot of knowledge in a very small package to people who were susceptible to its uptake. We might not see the benefits of OLPC until these children become adults.

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.

As an African, born and currently living in Africa where I develop and deploy ICT solutions to the most remote areas, I would like to say that what you are saying is utter uninformed bullshit.

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?

I am just sharing what I experienced when I was part of a program providing health care services to under served areas of Africa (specifically one part of Ghana). It was markedly different than when I was part of a program to provide health care services to Canadian indigenous communities (which are also under served in very similar ways to African communities).

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.

If millions of my neighbors get the same education and are given the same opportunities as I was, whether by chance or other's efforts they too will "get through the bullshit". And as a bonus, they will be less superstitious because they will believe in their own agency and not that of invisible gods or spirits.

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.

Actually you are sharing your beliefs, which are as valid the university students who believe in magic. We have those in Europe as well, that is also why there are religious universities in the US.

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.

> Unless you also believe thoughts and prayers will stop your mass shootings.

There are certainly enough people in the US who believe just that.

My point indeed. They believe that, but it does not somehow make them immune to education.

Sort of like the superstition that some populations of people lack basic human traits like normal IQ.

I remember when a calculator was hundreds of dollars. Eventually they wound up hanging on a tab in the supermarket for $1.99 and then given away as premiums with [Your Business's Name Here] embossed on them. Quite the ignominous end :-)

E-readers haven't sunk that far yet, but they're getting close.

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