OLPC XO Laptop Applications for Adult Computer Users

intel vs olpc
OLPC XO adult usage

I was browsing through the popular "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" by C. K. Prahalad (a very interesting read!) when I realized that so far there's been little talk about the possibilities that Children's Machine XO computers will bring to adults.

Of course the whole project is called "One Laptop Per Child" but it's quite obvious that X0 deployment will not only impact the lives of children. Teachers, parents, neighbours and probably anyone in a community that receives some of these machines could potentially benefit from the project in one way or another.

I'm not the first one to think about this issue. Back in August 2006 Michael de la Maza originally wrote about Adults and the OLPC over on the official website at wiki.laptop.org. Two weeks later Wayan also posted a piece on Adult 2B1 Users here on OLPC News.

However back then I attributed their questions on this topic to the still relatively early stages of the whole project. I remember thinking to myself that "they'll surely starting talking about this issue in a couple of months" and then I forgot about it myself. So what applications… sorry, I meant to say "activities"… could adults potentially be interested in apart from the ones which are available at the moment. Well, potentially there's hundreds of them but here's a quick list off the top of my head:

VoIP: While I intend to explore this topic in more detail in another upcoming post, I do believe that it's important to realize that the X0 will be the first, best and least expensive means of communication for hundreds of thousands of people.

While instant messages and e-mails are a great way to communicate for literate people who know how to use a computer keyboard regular telephone calls are more likely to attract the majority of users. Especially since VoIP will significantly lower the cost of phone calls in developing nations.

So far I'm not aware of any VoIP enabled applications on the X0 even though there's a short mention of the technology in the OLPC wiki.

Citizen Journalism: I'm convinced that many children will like the "Our Stories" functionality which will "help children interview people in their community and share those stories" (from Walter Bender's latest community-news).

On the other hand adults have a very different approach to publishing content whether it's a family newsletter or eye-witness reports on an accident. Now this may come off sounding like one of those Web 2.0 slogans but I honestly believe that one of the beauties of the X0 is that it enables croud sourced CNN.

So while there's been quite a lot of talk about activities which will allow children to make their thoughts heard I'm thinking that other applications aimed at adults should also be provided. Maybe someone will even set up a small community radio-station that broadcasts a daily program via the Mesh network. The possibilities are quite endless if the right tools are provided to the people.

olpc beer
How much are drinks here?

Checking prices of goods: I'm not sure whether this activity should be addressed by using the RSS news-reader built into the X0, relying on the web-browser or coming up with a special application or widget.

But in general I don't think that I need to explain the advantages of having direct access to information about the prices of agricultural or other products instead of having to work via intermediaries. Of course while we talk about agriculture it would make sense to include a way to access weather forcasts and similar information.

Health Care: Now I'm not really talking about fictions fantasies of 100% e-health here but rather smaller and more viable scenarios such as contacting the closest hospital in case of an emergency. Or accessing information about diseases, vaccinations and related material from special health care portals run by the government. One medical application per community.

There's many situations here where live access to other places, people and resources could have a large impact on people's quality of life. I'm sure all of you can come up with a long list of other examples where adults might want to use their child's X0 to access all kinds of information and services.

It's safe to say that while a Children's Machine X0 might initially be meant for a child's education after some time other family members will also want to use it. So I do think that it would make sense to start thinking about applications which are also aimed at adults. Whole community applications.

Related Entries


"It's safe to say that while a Children's Machine X0 might initially be meant for a child's education after some time other family members will also want to use it."

It's also safe to say that those other family members will hate the XO when they realize it can't play my video with Tommy Lee!

They will hate it when the see their "laptop" can't do what the neighbor's Dell can.

End of story.

"They will hate it when the see their "laptop" can't do what the neighbor's Dell can."

But again, will their neighbor hate his Dell when he sees what the XO can?

(PS, personally, I am NOT fond of Dell machines)

Christopher, two points:

1. Having been designed for children, the XO would be a very uncomfortable platform for adults. I'm not talking about applications / activities, but plain usage of the keyboard. I know, a lot of people use tiny keypads on their Blackberries or Treos, but we are envisaging users that are not that motivated or used to computers and electronic communications, the ease of use factor shouldn't be completely left aside.

2. Without denying the potential for "grown-up" enabled applications that you mention, I can think of a bunch of reasons for them to fail, that have to do mostly with social and economic conditions on the ground, and nothing with the XO itself. For instance: contacting health services assumes that the service will be able to recover injured or sick people from the places they are suffering to hospitals, but the reality in many poor areas in the countries I know is that the sick ones have to drag themselves to hospital and health facilities because not even the (volunteer) fire services have ambulances!

I know: there are alternatives, the potential of computer-enabled populations may bring change and whatnot. But please, remember that what I'm trying to say here is that there are a lot of potential to attempt things with the XO, but even the best activities / apps would clash with reality. Investing time and money in designing software without at least being aware that them may end up not being used because of unexpected conditions on the ground is an invitation to frustration and failure.

Adults can do the same things they can do on an EEE PC and more: Surf, listen to music, write, chat and so on. As the cost is 5 times less than the price of your neighbour's Dell, you can cope with the fact that you can't see Tommy and Pam doing their thing.

Eduardo, thanks a lot for your comment. You certainly do raise some very interesting and valid arguments.

To me personally the issue of activities aimed at adults boil down to two questions:

(1) Will adults in communities which have been given X0 machines also want to use these machines for a variety of activities?

If (1) is answered with "yes" then

(2) What kind of activities could be most popular and important to develop asap?

I absolutely agree with you, there are a thousand reasons why such a usage of X0s could fail, not work as desired, etc.

However what I'm mainly saying is that it's a usage scenario that could (and IMHO will) happen and it's important to think about it, discuss it and maybe come up with several activities before these units are shipped.

Jason wrote:

"Adults can do the same things they can do on an EEE PC and more: Surf, listen to music, write, chat and so on. As the cost is 5 times less than the price of your neighbour's Dell, you can cope with the fact that you can't see Tommy and Pam doing their thing."

Sorry, Jason,

If things were really the way you think they are, Walmart would have sold millions of their under $200 Lindows machine


People want what the consider (for better or worse) "real computers": a Windows or Mac computer like the one owned by their friends, family and co-workers.

The XO has way too many limitations to be taken seriously by normal adults:

Undersized keyboard, no flash player (no YouTube! - a cardinal sin), no third-party commercial applications, no printing, no hard drive, no office applications (not necessarily from Microsoft), ultra-tiny screen, weird GUI,no games...

Regular folks don't want that. They want their Gateway laptop. Give the XO to masochists.

Christoph, I agree that the usage scenario has to be considered. Then again, local implementation should be taken foremost into account, if you want it to work, and not waste a lot of scarce resources into a non-dull, reflective pachyderm.

Eduardo, I wholeheartedly agree with you that with many of the activities I'm mentioning (esp. "Checking prices of goods") local implementations are the best way to go. This approach would also be able to address some of these "unexpected conditions on the ground" that you mentioned as being significant risks.

So while I'm definitely not looking for a whole "suite of activities" I strongly believe that several proof-of-concept (if you'd like to call them that) activities should be implemented. This would maybe help think people outside the box and could inspire many others to follow suit and come up with other interesting activites.

Another reason why I believe this would make sense is that I currently feel many capable software developers don't code activities for the X0s because they're not interested or lack a background in educational software. For most coders it's probably significantly easier to come up with a "barley price widget" than to design software for 6 to 15 year-olds.

Anyway, in the end my main motivation for writing this piece is basically summarised by a sentence in the last paragraph:

"...it would make sense to start thinking about applications which are also aimed at adults."


you may have missed the point that the OLPC is primarily an educational project. The XO was designed with that specific purpose in mind. The XO is not intended for adults, and if people think they are, well, they should first try to understand what the OLPC is trying to accomplish: educate!

OK! Some people will use the green thingie for checking prices of goods, some for VoP, some for citizens journalism and some for accessing health related information and services (IF content is available in THEIR language). It would ALL be fine if the context were some American or European suburb. But just a second.The "market" for the OLPC are countries of the poverty-riden South. Diverse, unchartered and seriously unpredictable. Prices of goods could just as well be prices of SMUGGLED goods, drugs or prostitution services. Video conferencing and VoP are dream tools for pedophiles! With direct access to children... Who could ask for more!? And citizens joyurnalism? Sure! Along with bulleting boards for women or children trafficking.
All this mess compliments of the MIT Media lab! Well, if this is not the definition of an 'ego trip'... then what is it?

Nick, I think it's important to realize that there's a difference between the intentions behind the OLPC project and the realities on the ground.

"It's an education project, not a laptop project." certainly makes for a very catchy phrase and a good central vision of the project. However OLPC is of course also a laptop project, without the underlying laptop project there would be no education project as that's based on the laptop.

Now, is anyone seriously going to suggest that (whatever the original intentions may be) the X0s are exclusively going to be used for "educational purposes"? What happens when the kids are done with their school and educational work, when they stop being "active constructionists" (as that OLPC Nigeria report puts it: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Galadima )? The potentially single most advanced "tool" (I could of course also call it a "laptop", a "gadget" or a "device" - but I refrain as I want to spare myself that beating) in the family household will just sit idly in the corner waiting for another school day to start?

Of course not. And Nicholas Negroponte is well aware of that. If you watch that "60 Minutes" piece, where he's talking about the laptops deployed in that remote Cambodian village, he says "families loved it because it was the brigest light source in the house". Then the off-voice continues with "the kids often teach the whole family how to use it".

So in my eyes there's no reason to believe that adults (parents, relatives, teachers, neighbours, etc.) won't start using these laptops a day, a week or a month after the children get one. Especially if things really work out as intended, with children realizing the enormous potential of these machines and suddenly being able to do all kinds of things and access all kinds of information. While adults will of course also be using some of the educationaö tools they will also have additional needs and requirements for which they might require other activities.


I think a great use of the OLPC XO by adults will be for reading. An eBook usage model does not need to be constrained by keyboard size. Reading can be a family activity, and reading can advance several aspects of the family position:

1. General knowledge of news and information about the community, country, world
2. Specific knowledge about economic models & advances (ag to manufacturing)
3. Religious learnings. Don't forget that the Bible/Koran/etc is often the only book a family might own.
4. Specific knowledge about a culture, including very localized languages and images (remember the cameras)
5. Political education, organization and mobilization, a new "Little Green Book"

Christoph is right that adults are going to find many uses for oplc. That means that oplc is a much better economic development investment than if it were for education alone. And that in turn makes it more likely that developing countries will decide to invest in it.

Wayan, thanks for the heads-up, an ebook usage mode will definitely be very popular. (I can't believe I totally forgot about that one.)

However I consider this a very basic activity and I think within months (if not weeks) of X0 deployment people will want to do more than "just" read. Just like the X0 is meant to be more than an ebook reader for children, adults will also have different uses for the system.

Plus if you add illiteracy to the equation then things become even more challenging. Especially since (AFAIK) literacy rates generally tend to be higher amongst young people than with adults.

That's also the reason why I'm emphasizing voice based usage models (VoIP instead of IM / e-mail, community radio instead of newspapers,...). I also believe that text-to-speech might make for interesting activities. Imagine the above mentioned "barley price widget" working by the user selecting the product (displayed by a photo of the crop), then being able to select the city or market where he wants to check the prices (again, using images or photos) and then as a result hearing the latest prices thanks to a text-to-speech software.

Of course the same solution could also be provided by a (government) website. Maybe they'll call it "Crop Market 2.0"? ;-)


One thing is to say that the XO usage could (and should) be extended to the family of the students. But it's different to say, as Pamela did, that one should expect the XO to perform and have all the apps that a regular "adult" laptop has:

"The XO has way too many limitations to be taken seriously by normal adults:

Undersized keyboard, no flash player (no YouTube! - a cardinal sin), no third-party commercial applications, no printing, no hard drive, no office applications (not necessarily from Microsoft), ultra-tiny screen, weird GUI,no games..."

In other words, we should just stop to look at these devices as laptops in the geek sense, because they are simple not good at it. The XO is NOT a regular laptop, and expecting to find all apps that you have in regular laptops is simply stretching the purpose of the machine. When I say the XO is an educational tool for developing countries, I mean just that. Experimenting something new, that suits the environmental conditions of the hosting countries, and the educational needs of the kids. That is the primary focus. If then the family uses it as well, that's a great side effect.

If a geek then is going to compare it to a regular laptop, well, he can go out and buy one, if movies on a mega-screen are his priority.

P.S. BTW, the XO has built in Gnash, an open-source alternative to the Flash player. The latest version is compatible with Flash 7 and can play YouTube movies.

Eduardo said "That means that oplc is a much better economic development investment than if it were for education alone."

Well said! I think you've basically managed to condense all my thoughts and comments into a single phrase that says it all... :-)

Nick, I totally agree with your comments.

However after reading Pamela's first comment on this story I decided that I wouldn't bother discussing the "issues" and "concerns" that were raised... ;-)

Pamela, you write:

"Undersized keyboard, no flash player (no YouTube! - a cardinal sin), no third-party commercial applications, no printing, no hard drive, no office applications (not necessarily from Microsoft), ultra-tiny screen, weird GUI,no games..."

- No games: Please read the news stories on game development for the OLPC. There are plenty of games (OK, no strip poker at the moment, but give them some time...)

- Weird GUI: Just because it's different it is not weird, the first Mac GUI was also perceived as weird by the DOS people

- No Office apps: There are Office applications, example: Abi Word: http://www.olpcnews.com/software/applications/abiword_the_olpc_tex_1.html

- No Flash player: We are looking at a beta version of the XO, I am sure, Flash will work sooner or later

- No hard drive: It has a hard drive, it just doesn't turn! The future of hard drives will be chips anyway. No moving parts, they need less energy.

So, Pamela, better get the facts straight before writing...

Cheers, Jason

I'd expect that using web-based applications such as Google docs and sheets would also be an activity that adults may do with the XO. It's possible that kids will teach how to use them to their parents... A spreadsheet could be very useful to keep a log of home or small business expenses, and may allow to do a little planning.

It seems that all of you believe that you are more GROWN than children.


Maddin, sorry I had missed your post earlier...

You raise some very interesting and important issues which need serious discussion. There's no denying that there are a zillion ways how X0s can be abused.

However we also know that emergency food supplies, medication, etc. delivered by the United Nations (and other entities) are regularly (ab)used by countries, armies, militias, warlords, etc. to pressure and extort people. Does that mean that these supplies shouldn't be sent in the first place?

Personally I believe that the X0s *can* offer a lot of advantages and potential benefits that outweigh the potential problems.

Of course there are many ways the XO will also be used by adults. But is western community support for that a priority as long as even OLPC's implementation for the kids is unsure? In target countries as well as in the 1st world hardly any teachers let alone programmers let alone the public has understood the potential and the application of constructionism and the profound changes it will require.

By the way OLPC has so far not succeeded to use their publicity to help this understanding. (Maybe this is intentional in order not to frighten people with those pending changes.) Everbody knows a lot about the XO hardware but not about constructionism.

1. constructionism specialists need to help more educators, programmers and the public to understand constructionism
2. then those educators need to help create concepts for activities that should be embedded in whole new curricula and lesson plans.
3. then those programmers should help to create programs supporting those activities for kids that fit into above curricula and lesson plans.

This already is a gigantic and urgent task hardly leaving capacity for adult applications.
By the time the XO is successfully integrated in the education, there will already have grown local software development by those educated kids. They will know much better what applications are needed in their countries and how to make them than our western communities.

If you feel that more western communities should support OLPC then it must start with constructionism and not second priority software for adults.

Roland, could you provide some evidence of the efficacy of constructivism? Even better, constructivism via computer?

The XO is an open platform. Everything in it is open source.

It would greatly amaze me if there would NOT be a barrage of new applications the moment the XOs hit the schools.


"Roland, could you provide some evidence of the efficacy of constructivism? Even better, constructivism via computer?"

Google for:
Friedrich Fröbel
Jean Piaget
Maria Montesori
Helen Parkhurst (Dalton schools)

Then constructivism doesn't seem so strange anymore.


Constructivism isn't new or strange to me. The names you provided didn't answer the question I asked.

I would like to know where constructivism has resulted in meaningful, preferably measurable, objective, improvements in educational efficacy?

Make XO models come in a sleek black case and it would be a huge hint in NYC (Specially during subway commutes)

As I argue here, OLPC "After Hours" has an incredible potential:


While the project initially targets children, it is natural to imagine its impact quickly extending to their families and communities. Especially in the developing world, where communications infrastructure and computing power is scarce, this project may permanently alter the landscape for educational initiatives ranging from the United Nations Millennium Project to disease prevention to disaster relief efforts and beyond. In addition to its constructionist potential, the laptop could also become a primary channel (perhaps via USB thumbnail drives for villages without an Internet connection) for disseminating a wide array of educational materials and tools.

If deployment continues as planned, this device will be present in the relief camps after some yet-to-be-named disaster. Hurricane Katrina taught us how critical Information Technology can be in these situations – assisting in planning,rationing, and even connecting with loved ones. Whether applications to ameliorate these emergencies will be developed before they occur, or their absence be lamented in hindsight remains to be seen.


"Roland, could you provide some evidence of the efficacy of constructivism? Even better, constructivism via computer?"

I quote Aaron Tostenaes' comment:
"I wouldn't say that nobody have put those ideas into practice. Schools like Sudbury Valley (http://sudval.org) have decades of experience showing that if you just create a stimulating environment, children can learn on their own, without the intervention of teachers.
They seem to have a quite extensive literature documenting their results and success rate."

Just as you, allen, I asked before and continue to ask for proof of effectiveness of existing or in case of OLPC planned implementations of constructionism. I ask this because I am convinced this proof is necessary before spending hundreds of millions of 3rd world tax money on a large scale project.

But that does not mean that constructionism should not be promoted and implemented in small scale in order to find good implementations and measure their effectiveness without prior proof of it.

You have to start somewhere. And if it is still experimental you better start small. But you should start otherwise there will be no progress. It is the same process that constructionism proposes: experiment and improve on mistakes.

XO Tablets for Sale

Buy Your XO Tablet on Amazon.com
OLPC is selling the new XO Tablets on Amazon.com for just $149. Buy yours today!



Recent Comments

Community Forum