A Missing OLPC Product: One Printer Per School

olpc xo printer
OLPC XO: printed

As I was printing out Steve Cisler's excellent Connect-ED evaluation, I started to wonder how children using the One Laptop Per Child XO-1 computer were going to do the same: print homework, exercises, and even their own photographs or essays.

The "$100 laptop" will undoubtedly be a great ebook reader, and there could even be a Library of Alexandria's worth of electronic content, but nothing beats the printed word.

Especially when you want to spread your ideas, dreams, or just classroom writings with those in the offline world, like parents, teachers, community members or secondary school admissions counselors. As Steve says in his evaluation:

In order for teachers to take the information they find online or on the CD-ROMs I recommend extra resources for printing black and white documents, diagrams, and maps that can be taken to the coordinating centers by the CCTs or directly to the schools by teachers.

There must be ways of delivering information even where no ICT exists.

And yet there isn't a printer in the OLPC product mix. No way for students to transfer knowledge from electronic to physical format. OLPC is investigating interesting peripherals, Walter Bender says:
Barrett Comiskey of the Nicobar group (and former Eink co-founder) has begun work on a low-cost microscope and a low-cost periscope. He is working on developing optical and other peripherals for the laptop, such a plug-in membrane that can act as an audio drumming machine.
$50 olpc ebook reader
Can the Woodhouse ebook print?
But while periscopes and a drumming membranes are cool, printing is more lasting - and more expensive. Mobile printers are $100 dollars themselves, though you could have just one per school, and printer ink, copy paper, and printer maintenance would increase OLPC schools' operating costs.

Still, if OLPC can figure out hand crank power generation for XO laptops, I'm confident they can figure out how to do cheap printing. If only they put their considerable geek brain trust, and the new Director of Peripherals, to work on it...

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First, we really don't want or need "one printer per child". Printers are already quite cheap, and shared across a large group of children, the cost is not an issue. No point in burning OLPC resources when the existing products are close enough.

Second, why print? Yes, my kids have had to print out homework. That has more to do with teachers uncomfortable with computers, school districts with funky email systems, or incompatibility between applications (the teachers all have Macs locally). With the OLPC model everyone - teachers and students - have a computer, are on the same network, and are running compatible applications. Bit silly to print homework in that context.

Don't bet on a nice, cheap, rugged, reliable printer at low cost - especially one without large consumables costs (for cartridges, etc.).

When I specified a dot-matrix printer for the Jhai system in Laos many people were disdainful, thinking that I should have called out an ink-jet printer (they're so cheap!). Cheap, that is, until you count up the cost of the cartridges and their availability, as well as the question of reliability in extreme environments.

I made the decision that re-inking the ink ribbon of a dot-matrix printer was something that could be handled in the area where they were to be installed. The printers had proven themselves rugged over twenty years' service. Unfortunately, when I opened one up to see how to power it from a battery, I found an elaborate power system which defied a simple conversion and required an external inverter.

One of the most difficult problems in the design of printers is the paper handling - how to get a single page from a stack fed and moved reliably and accurately. One possible solution would be to move that task to the operator - require a single sheet fed by hand one at a time. This kind of solution is unacceptable in the commercial printer market, but things will be different in the schools, and hand feeding may be viable.

There are plenty of cheap printing technologies that use proprietary papers, but the real goal should be to use plain paper. The ink source is therefore the problem. I would suggest that it might be workable to use ballpoint pens in a printer that is basically an X-Y plotter with a place to clamp in a pen. That, of course, requires a reliable source of low-cost ballpoints, but they have other uses and have an important place in developing a "zero-based information economy".

Of course, such a printer couldn't print all that you get from an ink-jet (or a laser printer, for that matter), but for several years companies like Alps marketed what I call "scribble printer" mechanisms which moved a stubby pen in an x-y fashion and drew characters in a vector fashion.

Which is all to point out that specifications have to be considered flexible when you are approaching a new market, especially one where low cost and long service lifetime are of paramount importance. The printer is part of a system, and the system must do certain things and does not have to do other things. Working out these exceptions is a process which involves the end users, not just brilliant ideas from brilliant people. Is OLPC up to such a task?

I'm inclined to think the days of the printer are numbered. I personally dont print, but if I did its because someone else wanted the hardcopy.

I have a perfectly good computer screen on my ultra portable Dell C400 that is way better than paper.

In the long run, if schools have OLPC servers, they will surely be using some sort of printing device but I'm betting the farm that printing will be almost non-existant in OLPC schools.

Electronic Ink rules, ok.

Our sustainable rural network in Solomon Islands for 6 years - the People First Network - used dot matrix printers as standard. The model is ultra-low operating cost, with HF radio email used to send and receive email and text documents (some web browsing and searching also possible with web for mail services - such as MIT's TEK).

Modern dot matrix types such as Epson LX300 are comparable to low cost bubble jet in printing speeds, but the ink cost is a magnitude of order lower than the best ink jet or laser printers. With a monthly revenue of only about USD 100 per month, this has to cover volunteer operator allowance and consumable costs. The major cost is ink (the connectivity being basically free - the entire network only needing a dial up access at the base station at minimum).

With ink jet printers the ink cost per printed sheet is about 10 times the paper cost. With dot matrix, the paper becomes the most significant cost - the ink per sheet cost is less than the cost of the paper. The quality is fine for 90% of the uses - and a standby "quality" available for higher charges is an option.

Power use is miniscule - about the same or less than an ink jet - and laser printers demand extremely high peak currents so they are way out! We measured 40A peak drawn from a 24V dc supply using a laser printer that had been advertised as "low power".

Hope this is useful. One dot matrix printer per school will do the job.

In places where the written and printed word is the main form of communication, the absence of a way to turn what's in the computer into a piece of paper can be a hindrance. While it would be great for many reasons not to waste resources in printing stuff, the demand will be there, if not by the kids themselves (who knows but it's not that straightforward, I think) by the school's environment, from parents wanting "proof" of what's being done, to the bureaucracies. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, but right on, to not include a printer will be too alien and in the end, counterproductive to the goals of OLPC: the betterment of education, not the promotion of a "paperless society".

Can we move forward please;

oldest known surviving printed work is a woodblock-printed Buddhist scripture in Chinese of Wu Zetian period (684~705 A.D.); discovered in Tubofan, Xinjiang province, China in 1906, it is now stored in a calligraphy museum in Tokyo, Japan. The oldest surviving documented printed book, a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, is dated 848 AD


cambarne, Are you saying 'lets move forward with technology'? or are you saying 'print survives through the ages'?

I'm not quite sure what your point is.

Print can be viewed in different aspects.

The Printing Press in the 15th Century with woodblocks allowed multiple copies to be printed. Moveable Typeset allowed rapid assembly of print layout. Better ink produced longer lasting product.

Carvings or other single works that were not reproduceable cant really be considered 'print'.
You would then have to allow cave drawings and rock painting from 50,000 years ago.

Works produced by monks that were hand written (Illuminated works etc) are similarly not reproduceable as each one is an original work in its own right.

We are now in the 21st Century. Our biggest challenge is making sure that knowledge stored electronically is not lost due to changes in storage systems or formats.

Displaying information (print?) is secondary to storing and retrieving data.

"Displaying information (print?) is secondary to storing and retrieving data."

Hard printing anything should now be a discussion only undertaken when there is no other choice available. I would say that with a wireless link available between any two of these laptops at a minimum there is a whole load more discussion on requirements that should be taking place. Or perhaps we could discuss the correct range of marking system that could be used to grade any work, Unsatisfactory through to Excellent, boring through to brilliant?

The "paperless office"and "paperless school" have been predicted for many, many years now, but in both locations, and especially in the modern office where its way more than one-to-one computer penetration, more trees senselessly die than every before.

There will be a need for printing, no matter how many OLPC XO's are in a community.

wayan you are showing your age, open your mind, it's not what has not worked that cannot be done, it's what has not yet been tried that can.

I think not having a printer would be part of the experiment. We are tied to paper and maybe if there were not printers we would learn how to share our work online, or with thumb drives and wean ourselves away from paper.

just my thoughts.


Maybe a printer can be a good idea, maybe not. But that´s not the point, the point is that once you have the laptops out there you can allow a natural ecossystem to be created around them.

Green printers, yoyo, microscopes for laptops, simple software, external drives, school servers with video editing capability, are all things that could work. But they don´t need negroponte, or the MIT, that's a task for the entrepeneurs of the world. With luck, some may be even the kids that use the laptops.

Alexandre, you make a good point. There's room for initiative.

My concern is the fact that the whole OLPC "system" is sold as a package deal, not just in terms of hardware and software, but also of design: there's a design of how things will end up looking and working after all the money has been allocated and the computers are in place. To find out there that there's no printer attached could spell frustration, conflict or confusion.

And Vicky, while I do understand the intention behind the "experiment" comment, I would say again, as I've said before, that if the goal pursued here is furthering education, some other goals, like "moving into the 21st century", to paraphrase Robert, are secondary. To provide a printing solution (not necessary One Printer Per Classroom) is a way to ease the transition and facilitate interaction between the new and the old.

Perhaps they would just want to print their drawing to lighten up a classroom, or banners for a public festivity, or invitations to the mayor for a demo of something they've done. Small, silly things, but the kind of stuff people all around the (non-geek) world do all the time.

Hello --

You asked if the "Woodhouse e-book" can print? Answer, not the reader itself, but its operating software ('Illumination') can -- at least for printers which were in use in 1994 ! But, like many here, I think a printer of equivalent simplicity and cheapness in concept to the I-book Reader or the XO would be very difficult to build and, in terms of consumables, expensive to run.

I think Vicky has it :- once the XO and/or the I-book are out there on the ground, all the peripheral stuff can be added later as and when the demand for it arises; along with the 'school server', for instance?

Printers are harmful. Look around - it is XXI century now, the age of electronics. I do not see a single reason why we need printers. They are (or very soon will be) gone.

Now that the G1G1 project is going, and there will be many XO's in North American hands, we surely will need a way to print. How is it done? Sneakerware, by saving to a USB drive and plugging into another system? Will material be compatible? Will Abi-Word save to a format that another computer can translate for the inkjet?

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