A search of Google reveals that many have an opinion about the XO. Unfortunately most of those with opinions seems to offer no alternative solution to bringing computers into the educational environment of Third World nations. My favorite positive commentary on the XO’s role is found on www.xconomy.com, entitled, “The XO Laptop: Its the Software, Stupid!” It is all about the software, and I’ll say more in a moment about that, but it is ultimately all about the education of children! The critics need to evaluate it for how well it does what it was made to do, not for how well it serves as a laptop for them!
There is a great deal of information about the ongoing development and deployment of the XO on the OLPC website. Particularly look at the XO’s specifications and the “wiki,” where everything from software development to documentation is being produced. Now for some rather random observations on my point as I have tried to learn and use the XO.
FIRST, it is obvious that the software is still under development. They had to finalize the hardware platform first, and now the firmware (rather like the BIOS), the operating system (a heavily modified version of Fedora Linux), the “Sugar” graphical interface, and the various programs (referred to as “activities”) are constantly being updated and improved. Much of this software development is being done by the open source community, like most things in the Linux world. It will undoubtedly be a more mature and useable product a year from now. Fortunately, all of these updates and upgrades are designed to be downloaded and upgraded on the XO hardware after the computers are in the field (through server connections or wireless internet). This is not to say the XO is unuseable now. Rather, it still has a number of rough edges, and is lacking functional activities in many areas.
SECOND, documentation is lacking. The XO itself shipped to us with only two sheets of paper telling us what we received and how to install the battery, charge it up, and turn on the machine! It has been said teachers and students will be given training at the time the XO is deployed at a school. I question the sufficiency of that model. Here is a link on their website where at least someone has begun a basic manual. Without this kind of help, users are left to try to figure out the activities, connecting to other users or the internet, and downloading new activities and updates all on their own. And this will be teachers and children who may never have even seen a computer before!
THIRD, many things are well implemented already on the XO. Plug an external keyboard, mouse, or “memory stick” into one of the USB ports and they instantly work! Click the “Record” activity and the built-in webcam comes on with its live image on the screen ready to snap still photos or short videos. Once you find the “Neighborhood” view button (i.e., Networking), connecting to a nearby XO user or wireless internet access point was practically painless.
FOURTH, the “Browse” activity is a key component of the XO’s software. Browse is based on the Mozilla Firefox internet browser. But it also serves as a “windows explorer” style program. Open Browse and the icon of a globe appears in the circle surrounding the XO character on the Home screen (see accompanying photos). Once it has started, click on the globe to go into the browser. Then, depending on what is typed in the “address” area at the top of the screen, the user can explore files on a memory card or thumb drive, browse the internet, download activities or updates from the OLPC site, or locate and display photos and play audio and video files.
FINALLY, some details about the hardware of the XO:
- The 7.5″ diagonal LCD color screen has a 1200 x 900 pixel resolution. Outdoors the backlight and color can be turned off to turn it into a highly visible grayscale screen useful for reading documents or other outdoor computer activities.
- There is no hard drive. Instead a 1 gigabyte “solid state drive” (SSD) holds the operating system and installed activities. 256 megabytes of RAM is not upgradeable. Extra storage can be added through USB thumb drives and a single secure digital memory card slot.
- The CPU is currently a 433 MHz AMD Geode – not exactly a powerhouse, but a very energy efficient CPU sufficient for web surfing, writing, and engaging in educational pursuits.
- Printing is not currently possible from the XO. Documents must be saved to a memory card or thumb drive, or attached to an email, then retrieved on a more traditional desktop or laptop for printing.
- The right “mouse” button is currently inactive. There is also no “scroll” function currently active on the touchpad. The pad areas to the left and right of the touchpad have the hardware but not the software built-in to be used for stylus input.
Next time: our first efforts to get “our stuff” onto the XO.