OLPC XO? A Great Idea, But I Have a Better One


Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Lao Tzu

I am Dr. Martin Woodhouse MA MB BCh(Cantab). Like your editor, I believe that the OLPC initiative is, quite simply, the greatest philanthropic idea there has ever been. Since I am now about to be highly critical of it, let me make that plain from the outset.

olpc classmate linux
School yard antagonists

I have read OLPC News, and its archives, for several months now.. And what I feel is a growing sense of disbelief, as one would-be participant after another arrives on the scene. I am looking, it appears to me, at a school-yard battle over a bag of sweets.

I dare say it was inevitable that this scuffle would develop; we are after all looking at a projected target population of, well, it depends upon which enormous figures you're looking at today, but around five billion potential users? Nobody wants to be left out of the photographs, so we have Mr Gates climbing on board, and Intel, and the Linux Lads, and no doubt Apple any moment now.

Mine is bigger than yours, and all that. It is all very understandable. But, people, it's not very edifying, is it? And then, from another side, my mind is assaulted by . . . Well, I have this picture, you see, of a little semi-literate third-world boy playing SUPER MARIO BROTHERS or DOOM --- it's right there in the press releases: wow, Doom, eh? --- in his breaks from doing a spot of multimedia creation --- that's there too --- while somebody (maybe his little sister?) pulls away at the string on the yo-yo generator so he can have a few more minutes on the XO, run a bit more video, download a bit more stuff from the Internet . . . ?

Hold that picture in your mind. Because, no fooling, that's what being proposed. Multimedia creation with the aid of a bit of string-pulling. It's a picture which would make a gift for a more satirically humorous commentator than myself. Pull, pull, create, create, interact. What's the word I'm looking for? Constructionism, oh, yes, that's it. Constructionism, via string-pull.

I cannot laugh, though, because in the background to this picture I see the six-year-olds, the fourteen-year-olds, who can neither read nor write and who cannot therefore drag themselves out of the mud, out of the desert sand, out of the slough of starvation and illness and exploitation --- out, in brisker terms, of the shit --- as it was intended they should.

Could we stop all this nonsense, please? The XO is a superb piece of design work. Its aim was similarly superb, but has now wandered. It's now a beautifully designed political football, and that's pretty much all, while we play around with the philosophical and educational implications of making cheap(ish) computers available to pupils in the Western World who can already read, write, add, and subtract a little.

And that is a very, very great pity indeed. Because it wasn't the way it started.

In my next article I shall tell you (if you and your editor will allow me) what we need to do to get things back on track. It will involve not the "hundred and seventy (or however many, and rising) dollar computer", but a genuine, no fooling, fifty-dollar machine. Which doesn't, incidentally, need or use Windows, not even as a cheap three-dollar add-on, but there you go.

And maybe we can then all stop fighting over the bag of sweeties.

olpc lettuce
Old School Lettuce

I shall have to re-design the machine, in detail and with costings, I can see that. Put up or shut up, as they say? Fortunately I have been in the computer building business for quite a while. Exactly fifty years this summer, in fact, and here's a picture of the first computer I built, in 1957, at the \medical Research Council in Cambridge (England, I hasten to add).

She's called LETTICE, the Logical Truth Computer or LTC, and she has nine bits -- not bytes or kilobytes --- of SAM (Sequentially Accessed Memory), and runs off a battery. Two car batteries, to be exact. Charged by wind-power, you'll probably be happy to learn.

Mind you, I suppose things have changed a bit since then.

With love, then, until next time

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Sorry Dr. Martin Woodhouse MA MB BCh(Cantab),
but your article was too intelligent for my small brain to fully understand it. I only got that you think to be able to build a $50 computer based on your experience with a 1957 wind powered 9-bit-computer and are going to tell us later how you would do that. That sure is going to interest me. But unfortunately I didn't understand any of your introducing reasoning for this endeavor. Could you, please, explain again for the benefit of normal mortals like me?

I'm sorry, Roland, maybe I'm being too over-stylised.

(1) OLPC is a good idea
(2) But it has gone wrong, for understandable reasons.
(3) I can put it right again, by redesigning the machinery it uses.

(4) Design coming up next week. Enjoy.

Luv, Martin (a.k.a AOB, Arrogant Old B-------)

Martin, could you detail item (3) a bit more. For what reasons do you think OLPC has gone wrong?

Sorry that should be item (2). You see how small my brain is?

For the reasons stated in paragraph three of the article above.

(I knew there must be some reason why I wrote paragraph three . . .)

Cheers, M

In some respects Martin is correct. The OLPC laptop is over designed. Could they have used a simpler and cheaper screen? A lower power processor? Less memory?
Perhaps all that was needed was a web browser in a box?

It seems to me the 'killer app' for most computer users has been the web browser, perfectly capable of delivering educational content to children. Could it in fact be made for $50 each?

Wireless networking is still an important feature, is the camera actually as important?

Rubber keyboard, USB port, Li-Ion battery, touchpad, sound - seems to me to be a 'below $50' computer.

I guess though when you buy a million of them its still a $50 Million dollar purchase.

OK, then I shut up and curiously wait for your next article.

Requirements of any XO replacement in no particular order:

- Mesh network
- Rugged
- High definition daylight screen
- Ultra low power/long battery life
- Sound and video
- Anti-theft measures in hardware
- USB2 or likewise interface
- Operating System

Should be simple.


Not really thinking of replacing it -- too far down the road and anyway it's quite a nice machine. It just isn't quite what's wanted, that's all.

Watching video while little sister pulls the string? Not really, you know. Needs a bit more thought, wouldn't you say?


OLPC is a *philanthropic* idea? How is that again?
Where do you see charity entering the project?

Always a pleasure to read the arguments (and rhetoric!) of an old-school British academic - someone who had to learn the finer points of logical argument as part of his training.

I look forward to the continuation of your discussion.

1) Complain
2) Redesign machine with only $50
3) ??????


Could you tell us what do you have in mind? maybe i can run faster to the patent office, you know.

Well, you've got my interest now, DAOB Martin :-)

Looking foward to your next post.


(a) Thank you, Lee, you are clearly a gentleman and a scholar.

(b) Have no fear, Cid, all will be revealed at any moment. Our editor has declared next week to be machinery week, it seems, hence hhe short delay in revelation. Please wait, therefore? With bated breath, even, I'm sure editors like a bit of bated-breath waiting.

But no, I have made no allowance for profit.

Not that I'm against profit. On the contrary, I foresee great wodges of it, just not from the sales of the machines, that's all, which I think we could pretty well give away for free.

( You will doubtless have noticed that your average nicely low-priced inkjet printer is merely the cheap wrapping for the subsequent flow of ink, whose margin and volume quite certainly makes somebody rich? Well, the same principle applies here. )

Luv to all


Let's think a little about Martin's riddle.
The business model of cheap printers and expensive ink or of cheap cameras and expensive films or of cheap play stations and expensive games in generalized form means a cheap device that serves a certain function but while doing that consumes at least one consumable. How could that translate to school computing? A computer is a device. It consumes energy, memory, internet bandwidth, pieces of software, pieces of learning content, what else?

One of the main problems that OLPC faces is that the countries need to make a huge initial investment to buy the hardware. This risk creates uncertainty about which OLPCNews is posting all the time. If those countries could lease, rent or otherwise pay for the use of such hardware in small payments spread over time or over usage of a consumable the risk for the countries would be much smaller and therefore their acceptance bigger.
Ok. Now the world bank could take all the risk by buying the hardware and leasing it to the countries. Or the producers of the hardware could give it away for free but get payed via a necessary consumable.

Does anyone want to join the riddle solving?
Martin, any more hints from your side?

Hello Roland and all

--- well, you can see from my next post (to which we can now transfer the discussion if we wish) that the consumables in question are books, held as files on mini-plug-in-Ram sticks -- that is, not downloaded to the target machines from the internet, which is an extremely wasteful process in terms of power consumed (and hence in number of string-pulls -- never let us forget that fact).

Books supplied at incredibly small prices to the world's poor countries -- if not indeed free -- and at higher but still pretty small prices in the developed world . . . in both cases at very high volumes.

How does this strike you, and indeed everybody, as a notion for profitable philanthropy?

Luv M

How did this 'article' get posted?

It's just a poorly written and researched rant about what the author doesn't like about OLPC XO. I can't believe his remedial English Composition teacher approved it. Didn't the teacher tell him that 'stylization' is just an excuse for poor writing?

The only concrete gripe the author has is that anyone would try to make the XO when there are children who can't read. What? Who's trying to sell the XO to kids who can't read? If you are worried about kids who can't read, join the Peace Corps. Then you'd find out that the majority of children in developing countries HAVE shelter and water and schools to attend. The schools just have about one copy of each book per class. The teacher often will read to the class who then writes it down in their copybooks. If they each had their own copy of the book, and all books, in their XO, they'd be able to learn the material and discuss it instead of just copying it down.

The important thing to learn here is that there's a spectrum of need in the developing world.

It's not black and white.


Could we please dispense with "ad hominem" attacks. Martin does not deserve to be abused. Politeness is a virtue and not a vice.

I apologize, in advance, for incorrect usage of the English language, if any, in this post

Two thirds of the world live under a 2 dollars/day. Of those, two thirds live under a dollar a day. I have to disagree, respectfully, that a majority of children have clean water to drink, even in developing countries. For example 80% of India has water contaminated by E-coli and metals, such as Arsenic.

Literacy is a problem in many countries, as well.

I like the website that came up when I clicked your name. Apparently you seem to be living in paradise, if you are living in West Xylophone.