In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, who previous founded MIT's Media Lab, founded One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which works with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to deliver low-cost laptops to children in developing nations. But this week, OLPC announced something a little bit different.
The first OLPC device, the XO-1, is a bright green, very small, low-powered Linux machine with lots of adjustments for life as a UN-distributed gift. It's sturdy, it has excessively large and powerful Wi-Fi antennae for connecting to networks that may not be nearby, it has a significant anti-theft system built-in, and all its other components are as low-cost as possible. It uses an operating system custom-designed for the device, a twist on the Fedora distro of Linux called Sugar--a UI skin, basically--which sharply limits what the laptop could do. It can browse the internet, word process, chat, play games, and there are a few creative tools like a music creator and a beginner's programming guide. The project aimed to sell the laptop for $100; it never did, partly because that $100 mark wasn't based on an actual budget of parts and labor, but was merely a nice small round number (the BBC estimated it never even broke the $200 mark) and soon ran into distribution problems.
Fast forward seven years, and today, OLPC is announcing a very different product: a $150 Android-based tablet for kids. Not specifically kids in developing nations, either; it's being sold in Walmart here in the States. If you didn't know the bright green XO tablet pictured above was created by a philanthropic organization that usually works with the United Nations, you'd think you were just looking at another cheap tablet for kids who have been begging for a tablet but whose parents don't want to spend $330 on an iPad Mini.
The XO tablet looks a little funky, with its bulbous green rubber case designed by Yves Behar, noted designer of weird-looking gadgetry, but it's actually a fairly unambitious little tablet. It's a 7-inch tablet manufactured by Vivitar, a former photographic powerhouse that was bought by a company called Sakar about five years ago and now makes ultra-cheap digital cameras and tablets. The XO tablet runs a modified version of Android 4.2 specifically designed for kids, but it's compatible with all Android apps. It has a 1.4GHz processor (totally standard and unexceptional), has 4GB of storage (quite small), front- and rear-facing cameras (standard again), and, considering it is probably the same hardware as Vivitar's Camelio tablet, which was announced at the same time, the screen probably has a standard 1,024 x 600 resolution.
The only unusual aspects of the XO tablet, the only things that set it apart from the dozens upon dozens of cheap, anonymous Android tablets from Vivitar and Coby and Archos and Hisense (and more), are that it has a goofy-looking case, it's bilingual (you can switch between Spanish and English with the push of a button), and it has a custom-made interface designed for kids.
The interface is the most telling aspect of the whole affair. Whereas the XO-1 laptop was designed from the ground up for developing nations, the XO tablet is very much for middle-class western kids. The homescreen looks like an array of apps, but you're given the prompt "I want to be a..." and then each of the circular icons gives a game or application that encourages that career path. And some of those careers are not exactly options for developing nations. In this late 2012 Der Spiegel story, kids in Ethiopia are given a few OLPC XO-1 laptops and genuinely love them; they learn to read and write, for example, even though their town in the Ethiopian highlands does not have a school.
At the end of the article, one girl says her dream is to become a truck driver, so she can transport her father's potato crop from the farm to the city. Her father is impressed, if disconcerted, that this girl has such ambitions.
Now compare that to the XO tablet. The app asks what kids want to be, but the answers are heavily slanted toward western kids; options include "astronaut," "musician," "artist," and "mathematician." The apps themselves simply teach kids about space, music, art, and math, to name a few, and give them the ability to create art and explore the internet. (The tablet also includes about 200 books.) Giulia D'Amico, Vice President of Business Development at One Laptop Per Child, told me that there will actually be localized versions of the XO tablet for each market; the Cambodian version will presumably not have the astronaut option, since Cambodia doesn't have a space program. (It does have this, though.) "Each country will have different apps," D'Amico says. But OLPC is billing the XO tablet's apps as "aspirational." Will the Ethiopian version have "truck driver" as an app? What would it teach?
The only localized model we know about right now is the American one. But if the aim is truly to give internet access and education to those who have no access to it, why are they bothering with a $150 tablet to be sold in Walmart? American internet and library access isn't at the same level of coverage as South Korea or Japan, but it's certainly near the top of the heap. And Walmart sells tablets very similar to the XO for sometimes as little as $50. So what's the charitable angle in selling a mid-priced Android tablet to kids who can afford it?
D'Amico says that OLPC remains a non-profit, and that the company's earnings from the XO tablet will go entirely toward providing tablets and laptops to developing nations. But she refused to tell me exactly how much OLPC was even making from the XO tablet, after Vivitar and Walmart had gotten their cuts. Vivitar and Walmart, of course, aren't in this to educate kids. They're in it for the money. And the profit margins on cheap Android tablets are pretty slim already; OLPC isn't going to fund a charitable empire with the earnings from this thing. I do not, frankly, understand why they're releasing a kid's educational tablet in the States; I assume Vivitar thinks it can make a profit by attaching the fancy design and prestige of OLPC to its cheap tablets, but I don't see much in it for OLPC.
There's a bigger question, too: is there even a point in making tablets for kids? Android tablets are starting to be very good, and very cheap. The Nexus 7, our favorite Android tablet, is sturdy yet slim, can fit in your back pocket, is super fast and very responsive, and has millions of apps and great support from Google. Its cheapest model has a Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, a quad-core chip that destroys the 1.4GHz chip in the XO tablet. The Nexus 7 also has 16GB of storage (four times that of the XO), a 1,280 x 800 resolution screen (sharper and clearer than the XO), and it's smaller and lighter than the XO to boot.
The Nexus 7 also costs $200. That's only $50 more than the XO tablet. The only real benefit the XO has is its interface, which is not nearly as beneficial as the OLPC folks think. This GeekDad article gave a Vinci tablet, a similar Android "edutainment" device, to kids of a few different ages, and found that by the age of about 9 years old, kids were totally bored with the restrictions on a kid-friendly interface. They want the same tools as adults, the same games, the same access to the internet, the same apps.
The XO tablet is a total change of pace for OLPC; the announcement post on OLPC's site doesn't mention developing nations as a target market for the device at all. Instead it talks about fancy design and parental controls. It's not a do-gooder device: it's a Walmart-bound cheapie kiddie tablet. And those don't really need to exist.
OLPC is a non-profit that planned to change the world, through cutting-edge technology, by connecting its poorest corners. And now it's selling unnecessary gadgetry to middle-class Americans. Has it completely lost its way?
It was an ill-conceived campaign to start with. Why bother giving every child a laptop when not every child has enough food or clean water?
The people who started this campaign always had it focused on the middle class, because the global poor would very happily sell the laptop for a bag of rice to hold off starvation for another couple of days.
Has popsci lost its way?
As a small non-profit MIT spin-off, OLPC has near single-handedly halved worldwide laptop prices (including halved Intel profits), created the Netbook space, destroyed Windows Vista bloat (kept cheap XP available for cheaper devices until less bloated Windows 7 got released), OLPC has been first massively deployed Linux on Laptops to normal users shipping to 3 million children in mostly under-developed countries.
Now OLPC suggests to improve the educational value of tablets worldwide through developing educational centric platforms and content systems on top of Android and you complain?
Now popsci is saying the USA is "near the top of the heap" when it comes education of your kids? Perhaps you didn't read the science, there are millions of struggling children in the American school system, millions, perhaps tens or even hundred millions of Americans are loosing out through education and through their professional lives that follow. You're saying US kids do not need better educational tools through better educational tablets?
And the Rockchip based Tablet platform can be sold at $50 if Walmart and tablet makers wanted. It's not up to OLPC to choose the pricing. There is no problem in OLPC licencing their branding out to pay for what they do, which is to try to push better education forward with technology. What's loosing its way are all the politicians, technology companies like Intel/Microsoft/Apple, all the journalists and other people who have been fighting OLPC since day 1. You people all contribute in a billion children worldwide not yet having proper tools for education using technology.
I could buy a Raspberry Pi board for 40$, which is powerful enough to run a basic Linux OS like described in this article. I've seen basic moderate resolution 7 inch LCD panels go for about 30$ on ebay. Its no stretch to imagine adding a small solar panel that can power the small energy needed by a Pi and small LCD. Plus cut out the cost from the whole retail aspect of these parts and they're probably way cheaper. So I find it hard to believe we can't make basic computers for 100$ or less.
But that's beside the point. Instead of spending R&D time making computers for kids in developing countries, how about that R&D goes into some kind of solar powered water purification system thats cheap enough that we can give them to communities for free?
I already own an Ipad and did not feel the need to own a Fire, since I believe they duplicated the same purpose. I did however place an order for the Paperwhite, but after thinking about it, why not own a full functional device that is more than just an ereader. best-buy-kindle-fire.com is a good choice
Perhaps "the way" was lost before it began. A Cambridge study in India (via TED) found that children learn very well by sharing a computer. They help each other figure it out from nothing, and if the content available is educational, they learn that subject well. A web-connected laptop, OTOH, could be a tool, but is usually a distraction. Bob Stuart
I have mixed feelings over this.
There are plenty of "free" water pumping & purification systems that people could build from old tires and recycled glass windows - if people had access to information. This is where OLPC concept shines... a younger generation would have access to this type of information through this effort!
In the third-world, wire-line internet does not exist. An OK laptop, which was less concerned about athestics (how nice it feels) and more concerned about battery life, durability & wi-fi range) is a great idea. A local government telco e-selling a 2g or 3g wireless hot-spot (made in China) can bring a laptop like this to the Third World.
The OLPC initiative helped to push OpenFirmware out of a high-end workstation and mainframe market and into low-end portables. Also, the OLPC effort helped to set the consumer desire for lower cost portable computing, which is the only readon why this writer can effectively mock these units.
It is great that donations may have funded the development. If this could become a commercially viable product, instead of being dependent upon donations for lifecycle support, there is great opportunity for success.
If this product can never become commercially viable, then the user community will forever be needy of rooting for government or non-profit milk glands to fund every little effort to keep up with technology - and any plan, as such, will be doomed to long-term failure. Furthermore, the appearance of these devices in commercial settings is evidence of such failure. The mockery by this article writer is also evidence of such failure.
The writer neglects to mention that the OLPC is heat impervious and sealed against liquids. The longer range of the wireless is also significant. The low power level needs allows the OLPC laptop to be powered by foot pedal or solar power very easily. All these aspects are a great step forward and needful for the essential mission. If the Walmart market can help in any way in the OLPC mission- then great.
And by the way, what does "western" mean? Non developing country? Idaho and Montana? A odd use of the term and oddly
Euro-Centric. There are non "western" countries that are highly developed- Japan for one.
I think the beginning of the end was when Microsoft stepped in and strong armed OLPC to run a scaled down version of Windows. When this occurred and the price jumped, the project was doomed. Opensource/Linux software was the way to go, and OLPC knew this - the adoption of a closed, extremely expensive and buggy, virus prone, hardware intensive OS was the nail in the coffin.
"As a small non-profit MIT spin-off, OLPC has near single-handedly halved worldwide laptop prices (including halved Intel profits), created the Netbook space, destroyed Windows Vista bloat (kept cheap XP available for cheaper devices until less bloated Windows 7 got released), OLPC has been first massively deployed Linux on Laptops to normal users shipping to 3 million children in mostly under-developed countries."
Uh, not even close. OLPC has had zero effect on laptop prices, or almost anything else.
Netbooks were a failure, defeatured laptops that were a welter of compromises that suited almost no one, and a disaster on the market. Apple started the destruction of the laptop market when they released the iPad, a compromise device weak at content creation, but superb at content consumption (and education) that makes it directly suited to the needs of most people in Western countries, developing countries, poor countries, etc.
Apple has sold over 150M iPads in just 3 years, between the iPad and Android tablets there have been at least 300M tablets shipped, THAT'S what a "massive deployment" is! Tablets are almost entirely responsible for the first time ever decline in sales of PCs, a decline which is significant and accelerating.
Intel has been hit hard because it hasn't been able to produce mobile CPUs for the Tablet/Mobile markets in any successful sales volumes as It's core business of PCs is being ravaged by tablets. Maybe Haswell will stem some of the losses by enabling a new round of super powerful, lite and long battery life laptops, but they still have no viable CPU to get "Intel inside" in the Tablet Tsunami.
And asserting Walmart or anyone else could sell a product for some arbitrary price is fantasy of the highest order. Hint: If you can build and sell a useful tablet for $50, you don't need Walmart. You can sell it over Amazon direct to the consumer. The only thing stopping you and OLPC is your tenous grasp on reality.
Apple alone has done and will continue to do 100+ times more than OLPC in producing ACTUALLY USEFUL technology to EFFECTIVELY help educate children world-wide.
@ppardee: Yours is a tired old argument that amounts to giving up on the third world.
just before I checked out the bill of exchange of $5122, I did not believe that...my... brothers friend was actualey receiving cash part-time from there new portable computer.. there dads pal has been doing this for beneath fifteen months and recently cleard the morgage on their appartment and bourt a brand new Ford Focus. we have a tendency to looked here...... www.bay95.com
@RandyHill Apple has done nothing for the Children. The ipad is just an overpriced piece of hardware with very little educational value.
OLPC forced the netbook which sold several hundred million units worldwide and which most importantly forced the lowering of the average laptop price throughout the laptop market. It's because of OLPC forcing the existence of the netbook platform that you can go and buy sub-$300 x86 based 15.4" Laptops in every supermarket now. And those laptops are perfectly fine for all ranges of productivity in society, including the educational kind.
What Apple did was to remove the focus on cheaper better educational tools in technology, what Apple did was further delay by several years the access to better educational tools for the Billion children that have bad education in the world today. The destruction to healthier human development paths over the past decades by companies like Apple, Microsoft and Intel, them focusing only on direct corporate profits and in them having so huge power over the whole industry, they have been destroying human progress time and time again and have prevented Billions of people access to cheaper technology by blocking the industry into only making hugely overpriced bloated waste of time devices for their profit only.
The world will be much better with Apple/Microsoft/Intel gone. Those corporations need to die. It will free up human potential to finally get access to near-free Technology that can seriously improve the whole world, that can enable all children to reach for a better life for themselves and for them to build a better world for everyone on the planet.
What we need are $20 desktop computers, $20 laptops, $20 sunlight readable tablets, and $20 super smartphones, all those need to run on tiny amounts of power and they need open source free software that humans can collaborate on making perfect and which does not add $1 to the cost of these devices. The $20 laptops/tablets/phones are going to be indestructible and they are going to enable the maximum potential of every human to work together towards a smarter world.
OLPC is one of the very few organizations worldwide with the very tiny amounts of employees worldwide who are working on making this better future happen sooner rather than later. The $20 laptops/tablets/phones can be 1 or 2 years away from now, they don't need to be 10 or 20 years away. Get rid of the terrible lock-down on industry by Apple/Microsoft/Intel and we'll get this better future now.