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.