Saturday, January 26, 2008

One More Underperformer

I couldn’t remember the name of the Alphasmart computers (Neo and Dana), which I would have liked to mention in last week’s Star article about the OLPC, aka the $188 laptop, aka the XO. (alphasmart link) (Star link)

As well, due to space, two paragraphs of criticism (as voiced by others) were cut. I’ve included the omitted material below, along with the paragraph above and below the cuts, making a tidy little sandwich, for anyone who desperately wants the unedited version…

Since being announced in January 2005, the OLPC project has endured a series of setbacks, including, most significantly, an inability to meet its target price of $100. Although a $188 laptop is still pretty incredible (a price achieved through economies of scale, a Linux operating system, and a non-Intel processor), the long delay between announcement and actualization has meant that the OLPC has endured a cycle of initial rumour, buzz, praise, excitement, creeping doubt, severe skepticism and backlash – all before anyone had actually seen, touched or road-tested one of the damn things.

Cyrus Farivar, writing in a September 24, 2007 Slate article, asked, “What good is a laptop in the middle of rural Thailand when electricity, much less Internet access, are spotty at best? Rather than getting laptops into the hands of every schoolchild across the world, why not start with an intermediate step? Probably because One Blackboard per Child or One Teacher per Classroom just doesn't sound as sexy.”

Meanwhile, designer and BusinessWeek blogger Bruce Nussbaum declared the XO a failure in September of last year because it “was, almost in every way, a traditional top down product development, that involved the rural children in India, Africa and China only in the late stage.” Elaborating further in the comments section of his blog, he wrote, “Unless there is a universal design thing going on, the idea that rich, urban American kids and poor, rural Indian kids will want to access the net and learn from the same computer is wrong-headed and naive.”

An 88-per-cent cost overrun is not something to be ignored or easily forgiven, especially since it means that governments in developing countries have to pay more to receive fewer laptops. Still, I'll begin my defense of the XO by pointing out that it's so cute. With a pair of green Wi-Fi antennae, an elegant built-in handle and a nifty circle-and-x child icon, who could resist giving this little green computer bug a hug?