The XO Laptop: It’s the Software, Stupid

On YouTube, there is an 11-minute video of the veterinarian-assisted birth of a calf on a farm in Villa Cardal, Uruguay, a small town in a dairy-rich region four hours north of the capital, Montevideo. It’s an amazing thing to watch—at least, to a city slicker like me who doesn’t get to witness the miracle of birth every day. But what makes this particular video remarkable is that it was shot by a fourth-year student at Villa Cardal’s Public School 24, using the built-in camera and recording software on the student’s XO Laptop, within weeks of the machine’s arrival at the school last year.

Uruguay was the first country to purchase a large number of XO laptops, ordering 100,000 of the small green machines from Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation last October. If you dropped a couple thousand bucks on your last laptop, you may be alarmed by the idea of a student taking her brand-new XO into a muddy cow pen and getting up close and personal with a caul-enmeshed calf still shining with amniotic fluid. But to the folks at OLPC, who designed the $175 XO to be rugged and portable, yet powerful, finding the YouTube video was a triumphant moment. This bit of barnyard reality spoke volumes about an often-overlooked aspect of the project—namely, the software, which is designed to overturn old notions of classroom learning and give kids the ability to collaborate and express themselves in many media.

YouTube video of calf’s birth in Villa Cardal, Uruguay
“I was in Brazil, at home, and it’s around 1 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, and being an idiot, I’m on e-mail,” says David Cavallo, OLPC’s chief learning architect and the former Latin American coordinator for the project. “And I get a note from a regional coordinator—who reports directly to the president of Uruguay—who sends me this video from Villa Cardale, where there are 150 kids and every kid got a laptop. Nobody taught them how to do this, but they’re already making their own stuff and posting it to YouTube! You can see this fluency developing, a sense of what it means to express something in video. It’s really quite articulate.”

OLPC and the XO Laptop have received mountains of media attention over the past year, most of it focusing on the laptop itself, the foundation’s difficulties getting the device into mass production and lining up solid orders, and OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte’s public clash with Intel (a saga we hope we have helped put to rest with our January 25 analysis and our January 28 interview with Negroponte). In one recent post, CNET blogger Tom Krazit complains about delays in the delivery of XOs to donors who participated in OLPC’s recent “Give One, Get One” program (See “Give one laptop, get one sooner or later“); while Krazit’s blog is usually valuable for its level-headed coverage of Apple, his XO post typifies the punditocracy’s skeptical, often mystifyingly angry and dismissive stance toward OLPC and the XO.

What almost all of the coverage of OLPC has omitted—and what came out over and over in my recent interviews with Cavallo and OLPC software president Walter Bender—is that the XO does not really matter as a piece of hardware. It matters a great deal as a vehicle for a very specific vision about learning, education, and the possibilities for engagement through digital technology. And that vision is much more evident in the software that comes pre-loaded on the XO than in the physical design of its hardware.

The hardware, it must be said, seems almost expressly designed to baffle and frustrate adults; in the name of durability and portability, the designers have thrown out most of the comfortable conventions of laptop design, evoking predictable reactions from the computer industry’s usual media gatekeepers. With icy British sarcasm, one Economist reviewer (in a January 4 article entitled “One clunky laptop per child“) derided the machine as having buttons too small for adult hands, a frustratingly slow processor, a cumbersome and buggy operating system, a “screwy” track pad, and a keypad that (horrifyingly) “lack[s] the normal press response that allows smooth typing.”

Bender, who runs the software side of the OLPC Foundation and designed the XO’s top-level interface, called Sugar, admits that the laptop wasn’t designed for “fat-fingered adults.” (It was designed for elementary school students in the 6-to-12 age bracket; see Bender’s point-by-point response to the Economist review here.) “They’re right—it is a clunky laptop, depending on what your metric is,” Bender told me when I visited OLPC’s Kendall Square offices two weeks ago. “But my response is … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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