I like simplicity. I like browsing through the specifications of the 100$, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) computer, now called the XO. Of course, the paramount importance of the XO is its potential to help children from all over the world to learn and communicate more and ultimately lead a better life. But it is also a compelling illustration of what happens when you design a computer experience without having to deal with backwards compatibility or pre-existing notions of how computers are supposed to work.
The XO is a small, easy to carry device (almost like a school bag). With its round shapes and bright colours, it sort of reminds you of the pre-Y2K version of the Apple iBook. Also, it has built-in Transformer capabilities, enabling it to quickly morph into a standard laptop, an e-book that can even be read in full daylight or a gaming console. It is simply fun to look at, especially when its mesh network ‘ears’ are folded out. This will definitely appeal to children, but many features of the XO may even impress the most spoiled business PC users: there are more lessons contained in the XO than we think at first glance.
The XO is of course completely legacy-free, only using an USB connection to connect to external devices. The sealed, rubber-membrane keyboard is resilient to dust, dirt and water (yes, probably also to coffee and cigarette ash). The laptop consumes less than two watts, which is a tenth of what a ‘serious’ laptop needs. This is so little that the XO can be recharged by human power, for example with a crank or a pull-cord (imagine business users doing this in the plane; should make for a good exercise; besides, it’s very green and eco-friendly and other passengers would laugh themselves to dead). The laptop features an extra-wide touchpad which supports pointing, drawing and writing. The mesh network antennas – which completely outperform normal Wifi – enable a very simple and robust, peer-to-peer style of connecting to each other and the Internet.
Sometimes, problems just solve themselves. The laptop component that fails most frequently is the hard drive. So the designers of the XO simply let it out. Instead, the machine features half a gigabyte of flash memory, with the operating system automatically deleting files that have not been used for a long time. Of course, with easy and fast access to the network, there is no point in storing files locally anyway.
The XO runs exclusively on free and Open Source software, which is not only cost-effective but also gives children – and their teachers – the opportunity to use and modify their system freely. Furthermore, files are stored in standardised, open document formats. It provides the transparency that is needed to reach out to the outside world. If only that was the default in modern business already.
Yes, there’s word processing and spreadsheet and presentation software on the PC. But they are special, simple versions that focus only on the features that children really need to learn. So the XO does not carry the weight of excess featurism in software that is responsible for much of the clumsiness, unreliability and annoyance we experience with modern laptops (take that, people at Google! Just make sure your tiny, little applications stay simple). Also, because of this, the machine starts up in an instant and moves refreshingly fast through its operations.
Maybe the most striking innovation in the XO is its desktop: it contains a user-interface that seamlessly suits the type of knowledge work children will typically perform: learning. The SUGAR ‘zoom’ interface therefore shows a graphical world of fellow learners and teachers, the way they interact and collaborate and the activities there are currently involved in. Collaboration as the leitmotiv for the user experience: sounds quite relevant to a lot more people, especially in the age of social networks, collective wisdom and wikinomics.
One of the prerequisites for the XO to really cost 100$ (it is yet a little more) is that millions are produced. We might easily find many additional target groups for this device (elderly people, business people in airplanes, well, almost anybody really) that are ready to pay just a bit more for this device and thus indirectly would support the inspiring mission of One Laptop per Child.
There is much more to say about the XO. But have a look at it yourself and at the people that are building it (here’s part two and three). I am curious if you find any additional lessons that the world of IT Grown Ups would benefit from. Share them with us by all means.
P.S. The days of the already retro 1999 Apple iBook are long gone. Today, we buy iPhones (yes, this is really about boosting our visit count again) for a price that equals 5 XO laptops. One thing you have to admit though: the iPhone has a very, very simple interface. And the current critique that it only features a slow EDGE/GPRS network connection is neutralised by what every iPod user already knows: you upload content at home and synchronise it with your iPhone. Then you go out. Sometimes, problems just solve themselves. One way or the other.