A response to The Economist "One Clunky Laptop per Child" article
"Great idea. Shame about the mediocre computer,” says The Economist (Jan. 4th 2008) in reviewing the XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project.
What’s wrong with it?
“The keys are too small.”
- Too small for whom? Children or fat-fingered adults? The keyboard is smaller than that of a typical laptop, but much larger than the keyboards on the mobile phones we use to send text messages.
“It’s too slow.”
- Too slow for what? The benchmark is learning. Children—even those who have been using even older, much slower beta hardware—are learning.
“The software has bugs that cause occasional crashes.”
- Again, the metric to apply is the extent to which any occasional crashes might impede learning.
“OLPC shipped machines with a cumbersome operating system.”
- Linux, however “cumbersome” you may find it, holds the promise of long-term sustainability by the local community—and, being free and open. The opportunity for local capacity-building abounds.
- (For OLPC's views on software freedom and openness please see OLPC on free/open source software.)
“Adding Flash... requires users to go into a terminal line-code and type a long internet address to download the software.”
- We made a conscious decision to ship Gnash rather than Flash, because supporting free and open-source projects is in the long-term interests of our mission. It is trivial for Flash to be added to the base system where it is required.
- (For the record, the “long internet address” needed to download Flash is “flash90115.notlong.com”, and for why Gnash is shipped please read Restricted Formats.)
“Major PC vendors spend millions in research and development to enhance a computer’s usability.”
- Usability for what audience? Not for children. Our design goal is learning-centric. And we have—by both necessity and design—eliminated the legacy features found in more “enhanced” systems. We have no need for double-clicking, overlapping windows, complex menus, etc. Simplicity is our hallmark.
- (The Sugar design principles are explained here: Human Interface Guidelines.)
“OLPC seemed to think that just by handing out laptops, everything would sort itself out... the consumer is not the nine-year-old user with infinite time on her hands, but a government bureaucrat who has to evaluate the machines relative to the other options.”
- It is all about being an agency for change. Every head of state, some bureaucrats, most parents and teachers, and every child understand that the status quo is failing and that “more of the same” will not get the job done. But you are right: our biggest challenge is swaying “middle management”, to whom, in any bureaucracy, change is uncomfortable.
“Since the project launched in 2005, commercial rivals have emerged.”
- I don’t know how many times we have to say it, “OLPC is a learning project, not a laptop project.” If “rival” laptops get into the hands of children instead of the XO, that still advances our mission.
“This leads to the final problem... the hubris, arrogance and occasional self-righteousness of OLPC workers. They treated all criticism as enemy fire to be deflected and quashed rather than considered and possibly taken on board.”
- This is quite the trap you’ve set. Any response to your criticism of our project will simply reinforce your assertion that we try to deflect all criticism. I won't deny that we are arrogant and self-righteous. But there has never been a project at this scale done so completely en plein air. Our mantra is transparency, and while we have certainly fallen short on occasion, we continually learn from the community and change as a result. One of our strategic goals is for the community to “own” the project and by every indication, we will be successful.
“Ultimately the OLPC initiative will be remembered less for what it produced than the products it spawned. The initiative is like running the four-minute mile: no one could do it, until someone actually did it. Then many people did.”
- Not a bad obituary, but our work is not yet finished.
 "the sausage factory"
The article was written by Kenneth Cukier. Kenneth responded to my letter:
- I've thought about your criticism and our review, and feel that there is probably not much to say other than that we have a healthy set of divergent views on many issues.
It is interesting that The Economist seems to have a policy of letting the author of an article unilaterally dictate whether or not a response is appropriate. I had always assumed this was a decision left to editors. Alas, if you want to eat sausage, don't ever visit a sausage factory. It is going to be hard to go back to The Economist, having seen how they operate. --Walter 20:18, 1 April 2008 (EDT)