Learning The OLPC

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project was the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, and has the stated goal of providing children everywhere the opportunity to learn. It’s really not intended to be a project about technology, and while many of the laptops are donated the prospect of being able to get a laptop and donate one at the same time for only $200 is extremely appealing.

OLPC User InterfaceUnfortunately, for a project that is not intended to be about technology specifically it has been embroiled in a radical user interface design that is specifically targeted at kids. You can use the VMware Player on your own home computer to experiment with the OLPC desktop, a pre-built VMware appliance is available.

Why should this look so different from a Windows desktop? Rather than give the two-billion children in underdeveloped nations a computer with a standard desktop metaphore, the OLPC project is providing them a completely non-standard computing experience that has no provision for learning established GUI mechanisms.

Sure, there are menus and one might argue the nebulous onscreen “X” might be indicative of an icon, but generally speaking this is not anything like Windows XP, Mac OS X, Gnome or KDE. It almost seems like this is the kind of thing that would provide a learning obstical.

What is it exactly kids are suppose to be learning while using this laptop? It includes a utility for discovering other unnamed entities around your vicinity, something like an online chat but with unadorned objects floating around the screen. Let’s hope you’re not color blind, since that seems to be one of the prerequisits for using any of this stuff. Then there is a virtually hidden web browsing feature, which is quite similar to any modern browser with the only exception being the non-standard mechanism for launching the application.

It seems to me all of this could have been accomplished with a CDE approach, start an X server with a button bar on the bottom for a few core applications and have everything running in a fullscreen mode. What more do you need? Certainly a library of applications would help, it would be smart to keep the device easily extensible so that when the need arises to do something new (eg: learn how to track celestial objects) it can be added.

The laptop hardware is well designed and extremely rugged, it is an ideal computer for children everywhere with the exception of the user interface. Let’s hope this changes and an alternative provisioning option is made available, I wouldn’t want my daughter learning on this device so why should it be any different for children in Cambodia?