This picture looks to me like an old Atari video game a childhood friend had hooked up to his TV, but in fact it’s the One Laptop Per Child answer to the traditional Mac/Windows Desktop. The stick figures are XO Man, representing you and other people on other laptops nearby, clustering around different activities that they are doing together. Reading this BusinessWeek article, The Face of the $100 Laptop, gave me my first chance to really look at the operating system that Negroponte’s laptop will be running on – I knew it was Linux but assumed it was going to look more like Ubuntu. This is of course way cooler, very retro, and if it’s anything like playing snake it should be a smash hit with kids wherever they are. It’s even got a kid-friendly name: Sugar.
The audience he and his colleagues have in mind is the hundreds of millions of poor kids all over the world. Negroponte came up with the nonprofit “one laptop per child” idea when he was chairman of the MIT Media Lab and observed the failure of standard attempts to use computers in education to improve the lives of underprivileged children. Typically, a handful of computers, designed for business applications, are installed in schools; students only use them in special computer classes and are forced to share. Negroponte’s idea was to give a laptop to each student that he or she could take to every class and bring home at the end of the day. “OLPC is child-centric, designed to be a seamless part of their lives at home, at school, and in play,” he says.
Nigeria is one of the countries in Africa that will be participating in OLPC, and it was in fact in Abuja last fall at the Digital World Africa conference, which my Kabissa colleague Kim Lowery and a number of our members attended, that it was announced. Here’s what she wrote in a Kabissa announcement after she came back:
Of particular excitement at the conference was the announcement that Nigeria would be the first recipient of laptops as part of the One Laptop Per Child project (also know as the $100 Laptop). The first test shipment of one million laptops should begin arriving in Nigeria in November. Reaction at the conference was generally positive, though many people, especially from civil society, raised concerns about the details of the project implementation, in particular the distribution plan and the localization of the project to fit Nigeria.
Generally I have been very skeptical of the OLPC project, the cost of entry for a country (a million units!?!) and the “you’ll see, we know all the answers” top-down attitude Negroponte and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab tend to exhibit. This is confirmed in this “Just do it right” quote in the Businessweek article:
But XO developers defend their approach, which grew out of a core philosophy of the MIT Media Lab known as “demo or die.” Researchers are encouraged to build new things, critique them, and then make improvementsâ€”rather than doing a lot of concept-testing up front. They’re backed up by John Maeda, a user-interface design guru from the Media Lab who has been watching the XO development process from its beginnings. “They’re using the Steve Jobs method,” he says, referring to Apple’s famous chief executive and design whiz. “You don’t use focus groups. You just do it right.”
Still, whatever happens, the concept as it is evolving has certain appeal (the laptop is so cool!) and the innovations will almost certainly fuel progress in all sorts of technical areas – low-cost chargers and peer-to-peer computing to start.
And when they come out I’ll be on the waiting list to get one.