‘One Laptop per Child’ plan faces low battery life

His name is Nicholas Negroponte, and one project over the course of the past several years has earned him tremendous amounts of attention: One Laptop per Child. He founded MIT’s Media Lab, where researchers work on creating “sociable” robots, new visual displays made out of cloth, and novel ways for humans to interact with computers. Negroponte also helped found Wired Magazine. I don’t for the slightest moment doubt Negroponte’s intelligence, but the One Laptop per Child project has culminated in a relative disaster.

This past Sunday, Negroponte spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, again heralding his OLPC project as revolutionary. I don’t disagree, but I also believe it is destined to fail.

Negroponte noted that there was “a general obesity in the electronics industry.” This is true: Even though everyone needs the latest and greatest hardware to run Windows Vista acceptably well, personal computers were capable of performing the everyday tasks of word processing and e-mail even in the early 90s with only a fraction of the computing power available in today’s laptops. In nominal terms, laptop prices have fallen very little for a mid-range unit. Manufacturers have done a sufficiently good job differentiating and touting their products to make consumers feel the need for the latest, fastest processor and the largest screen available.

Meanwhile, the cost of a newly manufactured unit with the capabilities of an eight-year-old machine has dropped immensely. The Asus Eee PC I previously wrote about is but one example.

From an economic and conceptual standpoint, Negroponte has accurately assessed the situation: Distributing inexpensive, low-power laptops in developing countries will undoubtedly bring benefits in areas where textbooks are either unavailable or too expensive. Negroponte’s estimates have always been a bit ambitious — the laptop costs $187 today, will supposedly cost $100 by the end of 2009 and reputedly $50 in 2011 as production capacity ramps up.

But in order to achieve success, the complete package must be easy and convenient to use for even a barely literate student. While Negroponte’s team has removed a good portion of the complicated text and jargon from a modern operating system, the interface his team created barely functions. While a number of the concepts involved, including visual peer-to-peer instant messaging, are novel and interesting, there is no easy way to save and transfer typed documents. Additionally, much of the software, including eToys, an environment that combines something like Logo and KidPix, was slow, buggy and unresponsive, even running on a machine much faster than the OLPC.

From a hardware standpoint, the battery life of five hours is impressive, given the small size and low weight of the unit. The dual-function indoor/outdoor screen is novel in the way it renders text and images under different lighting conditions. Yet numerous reviewers have noted that the ruggedized keyboard is so awkward and cramped as to be close to unusable for extended periods of time. The squishy keys almost beg for typing errors. Also, the trackpad is not very responsive, causing pointer lag, at least on the revisions of the unit that were briefly, commercially available this past winter. Its processor has difficulty rendering even relatively simple Web sites, and YouTube videos are far beyond its reach.

Unfortunately, despite his innovative designs, Negroponte still has a long way to go. But he seems extremely determined to get his laptop right in the long run, and he has certainly begun a trend of “slimming down” electronics to lower their prices for both the benefit of developing nations and general consumers. One can only hope that his backers do not lose faith, as this is a very important project in the long run: The mere ability to access Wikipedia can provide children in developing nations access to far better resources than they would otherwise have through outdated textbooks of very limited quantities.

Barrett Williams is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column appears on Wednesdays.

Comments

  • Anon

    "Yet numerous reviewers have noted that the ruggedized keyboard is so awkward and cramped as to be close to unusable for extended periods of time. The squishy keys almost beg for typing errors."

    please remember that these reviewiers are adults with big adult fingers, and that the form factor of the XO is designed for a child in mind. i have not seen a single review from a child that says that the keyboard is hard to use, in fact ive seen a review where the child actually prefers it over a normal sized keyboard.

    "Also, the trackpad is not very responsive, causing pointer lag, at least on the revisions of the unit that were briefly, commercially available this past winter. "
    "Its processor has difficulty rendering even relatively simple Web site"

    the mouse issue was a bug in the software and has long since been resolved. please research before you review. the browser has a bug in it as well, and is being taken care of at this moment, you can read about the developments the olpc team are making at dev.laptop.org if you dont know.

    "and YouTube videos are far beyond its reach."

    altho youtube is a popular site here in the US, im highly dubious of the educational need for children to be able to view youtube videos. if youtube viewing is an absolute must and a valid benchmark for computer performance, there is a workaround online to be able to view youtube videos smoothly on an XO.

  • DRand

    There's a much better alternative for many of the same customers. I work for NComputing, a company that uses virtualization technology to deliver PC access that taps the excess power of today's PCs and shares it among multiple simultaneous users at very, very low costs. This takes advantage of the multibillion dollar development budgets that drive Moore's Law. It makes much more sense to share the power and to let Intel and AMD keep developing faster and faster CPUs than it does to try to get costs out by developing obsolete systems.

  • Ned Kennington

    The headline," ‘One Laptop per Child’ plan faces low battery life", seems to me to be misleading when the only comment in the article about the battery is this: "From a hardware standpoint, the battery life of five hours is impressive, given the small size and low weight of the unit."

  • Ned Kennington

    Is this a news article? It seems more like an opinion piece.

  • Charbax

    Battery life is 8 hours with backlight, 15 hours without the backlight. It supports Youtube the day Adobe comes and provides an optimized Flash player for the OLPC hardware. It automatically transfers all saved documents to the School server directly or over the Internet. The student doesn't have to think, just click the Save button and the document is saved online, the teacher, parents, other students can immediately all see the saved document.

    The OS OLPC is working on is the best ever made. Just click on an icon to launch the application, what else do you need.

    The keyboard is just fine also for adults, 13 million adults are satisfied with the blackberry keyboard, this one is large enough to type at full speed even for adults, just spend 5 minutes to get used to it. Children won't type so fast even with a full sized keyboard anyways.