I had occasion recently to find two friends who took advantange of the "Give One, Get One" deal from the One Laptop Per Child project and ended up with an XO of their very own. It is totally unlike any computer I have ever owned, because it is intended for an audience quite unlike those that use PCs already (though it is based on Linux). I first heard of the OLPC project in quite abstract terms, at Rebecca Allen's keynote from Electronic Techtonics, the first HASTAC conference in April 2007 (you can watch the whole keynote on our website). As a design advisor for the project, Allen emphasized the focus on removing what it doesn't need: there is no caps lock, no fan, no hard drive, and all of the software is open source. Her vision was clearly bold ("I like that this is a big risky project"), and I would say has paid off now that I've seen the finished product.
So you've probably heard plenty about the XO already and are asking, Why am I writing this now? The project has been rolled out to many countries throughout 2007 and 2008, and is probably old hat to you. I want to focus on reactions and evaluations from the young folks in the "digital natives" category and others who are accustomed to laptops in their everyday lives. From my observation, what makes this an ideal machine for children in less developed countries also makes it ideal for many of us.
XO in action, Raleigh, NC, December 2008
As you can see from our model Adam above, the XO (which is manufactured by Quanta) is built to be handheld. Not a bad thing when my desk at home is overrun with paper and I end up on the couch anyway. The user interface shows local views (similar to what our PC and Mac desktops are like) and "mesh" views, to enhance the ability of students to network and work on applications collaboratively. If my two friends with XOs and their colleagues are designing or even just posting photos and blog entries, this will be a natural next step to network their machines together. A third advantage that has also appeared on laptops made by HP and others: a screen on what the designers call a "transformer" hinge, which flips around from the usual laptop arrangement for touch-screen use. Starting to see some practical applications for this machine in your life? I already have.
XOs in use in a Nigerian classroom, April 2007
Returning to Rebecca Allen's predictions for the machine (as well as those of the chairman of the project, Nicholas Negroponte), the XO was conceived because "1.) Children are our most precious resource, 2.) [t]he solution to poverty, peace, environment is education, and 3.) [t]eaching is one but not the only way to achieve learning." With the initial focus on distributing to kids in Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, and Rwanda through the UN and national Ministries of Culture, this smart machine is making its way to several million children, to add a participatory, networked element to their education, both in formal classrooms and outside of them. For my American friends, as they make their way to us, XOs are more robust, greener, lighter, and will likely require less maintenance than the computers we usually use. If I sold you on the idea (and I'm not affiliated with the OLPC folks and was not asked by anyone to write this entry), you can buy one for a child or use the Give One, Get One offer here.
Photo of the XO in use while standing mine, Nigerian classroom courtesy of Flickr user inju