List of things wrong with OLPCs Operating System

Leigh Blackall participated in a One Laptop One Child workshop in Tuvalu, and came away less than impressed by how it worls ‘on the ground’.

Here are his, rather harsh, conclusions:

Despite all that I’ve said here, I still love the OLPC – the ideas in it at least. Like I said originally, back in 2005 – OLPCs have more to offer people in the wealthy economies than they do in poorer ones. They have forced computer designers in wealthy countries to rethink their commodities and release cheap, strong, portable and better designed computers at more accessible price ranges. They have lead us to consider the savings possible through the use of free software (at last). And they have indicated to us that it could be possible to develop very cheap computers and so conceivable that everyone have one (if we still think that to be advantageous). But from my experience in Tuvalu, the OLPCs got the software wrong for their mission. The Asus EeePC (arguably a result of the OLPC initiative) got it right, but ironically don’t share the OLPC mission.

To the Tuvaluans I would suggest selling the OLPCs on eBay and fetch the $300 you could get from collectors in the United States and Kingdom, then use that money to buy Asus EeePC or similar. That is if you can’t get another operating system working on the OLPCs.

List of things wrong with OLPCs Operating System:

1. The connectivity metaphor on start up is inappropriate for people in areas where connectivity is a long way away. The OLPC is more useful to people in Tuvalu as a device for games, media and typing before it is for connecting to the Internet, so the connectivity interface should not be the main focus at start up.

2. That said, we were using wireless connectivity in the Government building, but the OLPCs holding that connection was flakey. We had no trouble keeping a connection to the network on the Windows machines, but the OLPCs kept dropping. Placing a Wireless modem in the room with us seemed to help the situation. Another problem relating to connectivity was the amount of time some of the OLPCs took to connect. Some didn’t at all. All of them need clearer indication of progress in connecting.

3. The pop up menu for the operating system is very frustrating and seems to be affected by processing. Sometimes it is slow to initiate and even slower to disappear. I think its better to use the key on the keyboard instead, and turn off the mouse over feature.

4. Need better preloaders for the software. When we clicked an icon the software takes a while to load. Sometimes the loader dialog that says “starting” would take too long to appear. The icon does appear in the pie chart indicating active applications, perhaps something in that graphic could more effectively illustrate it as loading.

5. The browser must have tabbed browsing! If I missed where it was, then it is too hard to find. There was no right click option on any of the OLPC we were using, and I don’t know if there is meant to be. If the tabbed browsing relies on a right click then we were thwarted. Also, I think the browser needs work on its layout and features. The address bar takes up too much room and for some unkown reason wants to display the page name instead of the URL. The URL is for more useful in terms of information, and having to click into the address bar just to check the URL is just silly. The scroll bars are too small, and especially noticable when managing a website with a scrolling window inside it, like the edit view of a wiki. We didn’t try any ajax, java or flash – but I hope they are good to go!

6. I couldn’t work out how to manage files. I could download PDFs ok, but it was a bit of a fumble to display them, and I have no idea how to save them. I tried plugging in a USB but as far as I could tell, no new icon appeared offering me access, and nowhere in the browser of the PDF display could I find how to save the file to the USB.

7. I wonder about the touch pad. I am used to using them and use the one on this Asus all the time, but seeing as the OLPCs are so ready to think outside the square, lets rethink the touch pad. If you didn’t have the touch pad, you could have so much more room for keys! Apart from supplying a small mouse (which is infinitely more easy to use) I wonder if the game controllers in the screen could substitute a mouse, as could smart use of the tab key. That little blue dial that IBM used in the middle of their keyboard had potential I thought.

8. I reckon the operating systemm\ and software should completely change, and I’d suggest something like what Asus has done. I can certainly appreciate the innovations that I’ve found so far, but the extreme difference between the OLPC and other OS is too great, and will affect the usefulness of the laptops… think of it like Vista.. you are causing stress and lock in by being so different. The OLPC is not the place to experiment if your primary objective is to offer people in poorer econimies to access and exploit opportunities. Of course there is the new opportunity of servicing and administering the OLPCs themselves, but that’s hardly sustainable and I hope it wasn’t planned for!

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