OLPC myths


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Separated by "False" and "Falsehood" (inaccuracies) misunderstandings, and other responses where appropriate.


The laptop does not have internal storage such as a hard drive.

False: The laptop has 1GB of internal Flash memory similar to the inexpensive thumb drives sold at many computer stores. Operating systems can be installed and/or files can be saved on this memory. The laptop also has USB ports for external hard drives; so internal Flash storage can be used for the OS and some file storage, and common external USB drives can take up the slack if needed. Further, the laptop has an SD-card slot for further expansion.

The laptop will be really clunky with a hand crank on the side

True, but this is exactly why it was removed. The hand crank was there in early prototypes but the actual shipping units will use an off-board human-power system, connected to the power brick. Candidates include a foot-pedal charger similar to the Freecharge portable charger, solar panels, a crank, and a pulley system.

You're expecting this to be a magic bullet for poverty.

False: Not at all. It is simply a tool for education and communication and only helps, in part, in contributing to the entirety of aid programs where these laptops are distributed. Nevertheless it provides access to education, health, technology, economic opportunity, and more, and a few children will be able pull themselves out of poverty with no other assistance.

The laptop isn't powerful enough to run modern 3D games and other resource-heavy programs such as video-editing software.

True in some cases but irrelevant: That's not the purpose of this laptop. It is designed to be an inexpensive way for people of limited means to use a computer for such things as internet and educational software. The choice is not currently between this system and a more capable one: it is between this and nothing. This is better. [What programs the laptop will run well is more about how well the program is written than the functionality of the program, e.g., the laptop will have little forgiveness for programs with memory leaks.]

The proposed $100 machine will be Linux-based

It is true that the first prototypes will run a slimmed down version of Fedora Core with the Sugar user interface produced by Red Hat, however other systems have also been considered and could be loaded later.

The proposed $100 machine will run a Microsoft Windows operating system

True: Microsoft is working on a Windows based system that can be executed on the OLPC laptop. False: There is no strategy change. The OLPC is continuing to develop a Linux-based software set for the laptop in conjunction with Red Hat. But since the OLPC project is open we cannot (and maybe even don't want to) stop other people from developing and supplying alternate software packages.

An old Pentium laptop can do the same thing.

False: The point of this laptop is to keep people connected with the modern computer net-based society. Using a laptop that may be on its way to obsolescence from a second-hand store, or building new expensive Pentium laptops for this purpose isn't feasible. You have to design something specifically to answer all the requirements of the $100 laptop. If we could make a reliable $2 laptop that is modern and can do everything required of it in our program, we would absolutely make such a device. Another problem with the "old- or used-computer" approach is that it doesn't scale. The overhead of deployment and support would overshadow any potential economies in terms of the capital costs. A final, insurmountable problem with the "old- or used-computer" approach is power. The XO laptop uses an order of magnitude less power than the typical laptop. It is both environmentally reckless and economically infeasible to power used computers in developing world.

You're forcing this on poverty stricken areas that need food, water and housing rather than a laptop.

Falsehood: Not at all. Like it was said earlier, this is only a tool and should not be seen as more than that. We agree that other more urgent matters must be attended to before you insert high tech into the situation of poverty.

Not everybody agrees with that idea. Some think that access to the Net is the fastest way for poor people to get the political clout to require their governments to provide services to them. Or to get the education for real jobs that take them out of poverty completely. Or access to innovative technologies for providing food, water, clothing, shelter, energy, etc.

But we believe education and communication with the modern world to be important as well. Food, water, clothing and other necessities come first. Nevertheless, a world view and good education can do wonders for a child's mind and continued health. Computers, especially those that are networked, have shown to be development 'multipliers', that is they help to improve the delivery of medical, educational and communication services.

This isn't a laptop. This is a gadget.

Falsehood: What does this mean? To call it a "gadget" implies that this is nothing more than a toy or an insignificant object of interest. Can a commercially available PDA do better? Highly unlikely. Can a cell phone do better? Why waste a cell phone that may not have the needed features in an effort to avoid designing something to really solve these problems? This is not to say that others can't come up with better ideas; we encourage it. In the strictest utilitarian sense our hope is that this technology we call a laptop can do much more than mere gadgetry. And we're confident it can.

You can't use a laptop in a place that might not have power.

False: If the laptop comes with a method of inexpensive self-contained rechargeable power, such as wind-up power that lasts a good long time, this is not true. [We are aiming for a minimum of a 10:1 ratio between time put into reading the eBook and time human-powering, i.e., one minute of cranking gives you at least ten minutes of reading.] You might be surprised at the number and variety of energy sources available in poor countries, including solar, wind, water, bicycle, animal, biomass, etc.

It is not made of recyclable components

False: The XO is the greenest laptop ever made. EPEAT (www.epeat.net) is an organization that measures the environmental impact of laptops. OLPC is in process of applying for a rating for them, which we believe will be excellent. XO appears destined to be the first laptop to receive their Gold Rating, and in fact, it has been suggested that the XO may warrant establishing a new, even higher rating.

It will contribute to the landfills worldwide if made in vast quantities

We hope that is not true. If the program is run well by governments all or most laptops will be accounted for. No doubt some laptops will find their way into trash bins and garbage dumps, where there are strong financial incentives for almost all of them to be reclaimed. Will broken laptops be brought back and recycled or parted out for new laptops (refurbished)? Hopefully. And hopefully distribution and reclamation will be conducted in a responsible manner.

If others are coming up with their own ideas then there must be something inherently wrong with your idea.

Falsehood: Not so. Like mentioned earlier, if other groups and businesses come up with their own ideas then we encourage it. That doesn't automatically put a value judgement on competing ideas. Some ideas or projects may have strengths and weaknesses that others do not. We can only learn from each other to better each other's ideas and we hope we will in the spirit of goodwill towards those who need it. But what we hope this does not turn into is petty rivalry and cutthroat politics in business that is not conducive to a cause we happen to champion.

This laptop will do more harm than good.

How so?: If it's simply a tool as water purifying machines are tools, how will it harm the people it's intended to help? If you're talking about the digital divide in most places where this program may be instituted, think on that a minute. If this laptop does what it's intended to do it can only open avenues to better close that divide. If you're talking about the environment, read the entries on that further up the list. Or do you think that these laptops will, for example, destroy languages and cultures? Hardly. Even now, minority languages that seemed to be dying out, such as Hawai'ian, Welsh and Irish, and Yiddish are coming back. Why wouldn't that work for languages of Africa or Asia? These laptops will provide unequalled opportunities for saving once endangered aspects of civilization and bring them to the attention and consideration of the entire world community. This is what we generally mean by "communication" and this laptop can only help, not hinder, in the achievement of this goal.

Why this hasn't been done before is because there must be a very good reason against it.

False: All things have a beginning. And not doing things just because others before you haven't done those things is no reason not to do them or make excuses why not to do them. Most likely because possible previous attempts have failed (presumably) is because the right technology just wasn't there to begin with. Now we have technology that is cheap enough and available enough to attempt something of this magnitude. That's how it's always been. We are trying to "stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us" and learn from their mistakes, and we have had to invent some things from scratch to bypass some of the well-known pitfalls of such a project. This evolution of technology is based on Moore's Law. The evolution of the epistemology--recall that this is a learning project--is based on 40 years of research into technology and learning. Eventually the written word spread across the globe and obviously was developed as civilization developed. It had to start somewhere with someone. Same with technology and its eventual seeming ubiquity.

OLPC has no plan for (insert topic of objection)

People say that OLPC has no plan for recycling the laptops, or training teachers, or getting software into local languages, or preventing wholesale theft and resale of the machines, or a host of other things that we clearly should plan for. The fact is that it is too soon to have an announced plan for any of these things. But lack of an announced plan does not equate to lack of planning. Significant numbers of people are putting their best thoughts and other efforts into these problems, and will have much to say at the appropriate times.

On the other hand, how can we plan in any detail for such huge transforming events as bringing a generation out of poverty? Look at countries where it has happened, like South Korea, or is happening, like Thailand. Who could have predicted twenty or thirty years ago where they would be today, and what they would need next? Who could have predicted that South Korea would become the most highly digitally-connected nation on Earth, or the state of the North Korean and Burmese refugee problems?

So the kind of planning we have to do is what software developers call Agile Planning. We have to know what we can do next, and we have to create a process for understanding what happens when we do it, and how we can proceed from wherever we get to. The opposite of the infamous Soviet or Indian Five-Year Plan, or the Waterfall model of software development, where everything is supposed to be known in advance, whether it can be or not.

What do we need to do next?

  • Build and test the computer, and get it ready for production
  • Get more software for it in more languages
  • Get financial commitments for the first production run and field trials
  • Plan enough of the training and logistics for the trials
  • Research the trials
  • Plan the next larger rollout

We have a pretty good idea how to do the first two, Sales & Marketing (AKA Prof. Negroponte) is working the third about as well as he can, and it's still too soon to do more than outline the last three. The problems of training and logistics will be different in every country. We will need to focus considerable energy on the issues that actually arise, and not wish for a plan that could meet every possible contingency.

How can we tell what happened?

  • Pay attention, AKA research, done by professional researchers and by the people concerned. Read the children's blogs, for one major thing.

Then what?

  • Oh, just another 200 or so countries where 6,000+ languages are spoken, major health problems, the odd civil war or tyranny, a little of this and a little of that, you know. No shortage of challenges. The perfect setting for a flowering of ingenuity that will put the Industrial Revolution to shame. I'm counting on the brainpower and energy of a few hundred million hungry children. You and I can't outthink them, especially not in advance.

So are you going to stand there cursing the darkness, or teach people to make candles?

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