Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, January 27, 2021

child proof
So I’ve already weighed in on the pros and cons of One Laptop Per Child’s XO computer. In a nutshell, I think the machine’s physical design was better thought-out than the software used to run it.

But let’s face it: I’m 3 or 4 times (or 5 times, even) older than the age of the intended user of this thing. How would a kid handle the XO?

Unfortunately, I don’t have such a pint-sized guinea pig at hand. But reporters at the Associated Press and New York Times did, and so they let their kids, ranging in age from preschool to early teens, have at it as test subjects.

Verdicts? On first contact, the XO managed to confuse more than engage, which seems like a fatal defect in something designed to draw in kids. Here’s a snippet from the AP experiment:

The OLPC runs on the Linux operating system and a chip made by Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. The software was complicated and buggy. For weeks neither my brilliant niece, nor her well educated parents, could figure out how to get it to connect online.

They eventually had to reconfigure and upgrade the operating system, a complex process certainly not doable by a computer rookie. Pity the child in a remote Cambodian village trying to figure out this instruction from the OLPC Web site: “At your root prompt, type: olpc-update (build-no) where (build-no) is the name of the build you would like.”

Even worse, in order to save trees, the OLPC arrived with very few printed instructions. Instead the users were directed to a Web site for help, which would have been an insurmountable challenge if this was their only computer.

I actually had some trouble getting the XO to access the Web as well. Thankfully, it took me only a matter of several minutes, not weeks, and I didn’t have to reconfigure/upgrade anything — which tells me that that family simply didn’t bother to poke around the thing for a sustained-enough time. But point taken: Whoever’s using the XO shouldn’t have to strive to figure out what’s probably the primary function of the computer, i.e. getting onto the Internet. That’s troubleshooting fix No. 1 for OLPC: Make sure the software detects the nearest wi-fi connection by default, automatically at startup.

The dearth of printed material in the packaging also struck me as a shortcoming, despite the stated objective of saving on costs and eco-impact. You could also argue that any paper documentation would have to be multi-lingual, but realistically, they could get away with English-only. As with the coding apps provided, I saw this as another example of the missteps that happen when you let technocratic thinking guide what’s supposed to be a mainstream product.

Meanwhile, the NYT experiment also ran into interface roadblocks, both hardware and software:

It was hard to open. That killed the communitarian buzz for awhile. I had charged it — with a standard AC jack, though it can also run off a custom-designed solar panel — but ignored the (online) instructions. Antennas, which I mistook for kickstands, needed to be raised. An enticingly big button that looked like a latch turned out to be a hinge…

The touchpad is miniature, as are the Altoid-size keys on the hermetic, rubberized qwerty keyboard, which can be peeled off and replaced with other character sets. (The XO’s default language can also be changed.) The interface is cryptic. Icons like a speech bubble and an artist’s palette abound, circling on a zodiac-like wheel. We came across some odd words too, even on the English-language XO: Concret, Byke. Cartoon images of a turtle and a drum promised “TurtleArt” and “TamTam Jam.” We tried our hand at TurtleArt. A demo showed an exploding bubble scheme, but we couldn’t create our own. The XO’s music program tinkled along arbitrarily, simulating the sounds of an electric guitar, bongos and even a cola-colored bottle.

Again, it took me a few seconds to figure out how to flip the XO’s lid as well. Actually, having the antennae double as latches is pretty ingenious, so I don’t see that as a big problem. But again, that software is aptly described as “cryptic”, although I specifically singled out TamTam Jam as one of the bright spots in the software suite, as it seems reasonably intuitive for making music.

Overall, it looks like I’m not alone in finding the XO less than ideal for its purpose. The only caveat is that, even with kids at the controls, the computer is still being tested in the context of an affluent culture that’s accustomed to digital tools. Give this same computer to the intended audience — impoverished families where basic electricity is something of a luxury — and it might yield more productive experiences. Personally, I think the chief purpose of the XO is to give Third Worlders a cheap way to get information via the Web; if it achieves nothing more than that (provided there’s an available wi-fi access point in the area, of course), then it’s done the job. But the current incarnation looks to need some work before it achieves even that.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 01/27/2008 08:54:20 PM
Category: Tech, Society
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