2010-05-18

One lap...er..computer per child.

While the One Laptop Per Child initiative is a laudable one, I think the project in its current incarnation is a dead end.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of these devices a couple of years ago and the first thing that struck me was that the OS was not made for humans, but for aliens.  It took me a long time to make sense of it.  There seemed to be a faulty assumption that since its prospective users were unfamiliar with computers they would need a radically different UI.  I hadn't given this much thought back when the XO came out, so I thought this might be the right thing to do, but a few years down the line I see it as a boneheaded move.

(It would seem there was even a bit of inappropriate cultural sensitivity built into this misguided design -- perhaps they were afraid of being accused of cultural imperialism?) 

In any case I think this did more to underline a divide than to bridge a gap.

The second problem with the device was that it assumes that a laptop is the right form-factor.  Admittedly, at the time I was guilty of thinking this myself.

I think the ideal computer of the under-privileged has more in common with what we commonly refer to smart phones:  a much smaller device that in addition to being a computer is also a phone.  For everyday use a touch-screen should be good enough.  Perhaps a bit bigger than a typical iPhone or Android phone screen for cost/readability tradeoff, but  judging by my own extended use of such devices for browsing and reading, these are actually well into the realm of the usable.

For extended use I think that a simple external keyboard and an outlet for a screen would make the device more versatile.  Since there is a huge installed base of TVs it should be possible to create inexpensive interfaces.

The cost of devices that are powerful enough to serve as a base line computing platform is coming down every quarter.  Our obsession with smart phones in the west is bringing the manufacturing costs down rapidly.  And while the fast-paced adoption of mobile phones in developing countries is currently somewhat limited to very primitive devices, I think we will see more advanced devices gain wide adoption in these markets in a few years.

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