OLPC Arrives!

I got my XO laptop from the OLPC project last week, and the project has come a long way.

2005, a design sketch:

olpc image in 2005

2007, Rob Savoye, legendary old school GNU hacker (currently heading up the Gnash project) and I at FOSDEM 2007 with his XO-B1:

rob savoye and dave crossland at fosdem2007

2008, a 6 year old design student:

olpc princess in mongolia, 2008

2008, Gerard Unger and I with my XO:

gerard unger and dave crossland with an olpc xo laptop

Matthieu and Michi

matd students checking out my olpc xo

Opening the XO seems to confound everyone :-)

flipping an XO into ebook mode

The screens are visibly different, in that the “scanline” is unusually diagonal (image).

A typical concern is that 6 year olds are too young to really appreciate laptops. I don’t know why that age specifically was chosen, but here are some older kids replacing the motherboard (via Memex):

So thats the image binge over with :-)

The best way to keep up with the progress of OLPC is to sign up to the community-news mailing list that has a weekly bulletin by Walter Bender (GMane has a nice archive)

As other blogger have noted, they are typical of a snapshot of any currently-in-major-development-mode GNU+Linux system, which is something that snooty Economic journalists completely don’t get at all.

This is saddening because bad press for OLPC, to an audience of influential people, is not good. In an ironic postmodern way it is good though - more evidence of the death of journalism through ignorance continuing unabated; the sit-at-your-desk-reading-press-releases journalism ‘submarine’ has had the plug pulled on its water tank and is quickly being exposed for the crock it is. (There are still some investigative journalists doing good work so maybe I read too many Superman comics as a kid (ahem) and there was never widespread Lois Lane style investigative journalism, it was always this way…)

Anyway, this clown at the Economist mixes up the XO laptop with Windows XP, a schoolboy’s error, and his number one problem is that Gnash doesn’t play YouTube in the built that shipped with his laptop.

Recently on the gnash-dev mailing list, John Gilmore wrote:

I know the codec software patent issue is painful bullshit that nobody should have to deal with. Since it’s government-imposed bullshit, I think it falls into the “taxes” part of the unavoidable “death and taxes”.

Having just done front-line support for OLPC, how about a suggestion then:

When there’s a codec issue, put up a message, in the web page display, that says it’s a codec issue. Don’t just end up with a grey rectangle. If you want to be fancy, say which codec is being used that we don’t support, and why we don’t support it.

At the moment all that most people know is, “It doesn’t work.” They direct their frustration at OLPC, Browse, or Gnash because that’s what’s in front of them. If we took the trouble to tell them, “This video won’t display because the corrupt US government issued patent 123,456,797 on codec C and the company is demanding X cents per flash player, which we haven’t paid”, a much more informed discussion could take place. And the gnash team could tell the codec problems from the real ActionScript implementation bugs.

And maybe after OLPC saw this, they would let you add a “Click here if you’re European and have sane laws about software patents” link, which would install the proper codec.

OLPC can’t ship Adobe flash; they don’t have a license to do so. The one you download from the Adobe website doesn’t come with permission to share it. Maybe they could get one by negotiation; but they prefer to stand in solidarity with the free software community.

The target audience of G1G1 was kids, many of whom seem to be in thrall to the webkinz.com brightly colored pyramid scheme. Here’s an excerpt from one support ticket, after they installed Adobe Flash with help from a techie friend, but didn’t figure out how to uninstall gnash: “No resolution. I am waiting and hoping you can get someone to ‘add a very simple walk-through’, as you have stated below. My daughter does not want to use her XO since she is unable to get into Webkins and Learning Today.” I tried it; the homepage works, but clicking “New Member” leads to a Flash “Loading…” page that never goes away. If this is a Flash version issue, hey, how about Gnash putting up a message about *that* very common problem, too?

BBC content aimed at children also make heavy use of Flash, so I wonder if anyone in CBBC or similar might have some 10%-time style resources to contribute to Gnash :-)

Software idea patents are a top obstacle for OLPC and all free software projects, and the FSF’s annual members meeting at the start of March will include a speech about their upcoming campaign to get software idea patents in the USA abolished.

Airplane mode for turning off the wireless is a planned feature, and will also save some battery life when activated; it should be in the upcoming Update1 release due in about a month’s time. (The wiki has great instructions about how to install updates already)

A blogger reviewing his OLPC noted how to disable the hot corners shelf popup:

Comment out (add a # in the first column) lines 56 & 57 of /usr/share/sugar/shell/view/frame/eventarea.py

There are “cheat codes” for booting the XO in special ways, the best being pressing right on the dpad and turning it on, which starts either a “game of life” screensaver to watch until you press a key to resume normal boot, or a game of pong! “Brilliant!” as Chris Buckley would say :-)

The wiki has tonnes of good stuff, like a Simplified User Guide that extends the official quickstart information, and a list of all the programs - “activities” in OLPC jargon - that you can download. Including, controversially, Doom :-)

There is a command line tool “sugar-control-panel” that reminds me of the old Apple Mac OS X NetInfo database, which reminded me of the Windows Registry - which are all pretty grim, really.

There is no email program as yet, but if the Chat activity was altered to store messages for friends who are currently offline and send them when they next appear online (like any decent instant messaging tool would) that would do a similar job pretty well. Chat currently doesn’t have page up/down working to scroll the buffer, and over-all keyboard interaction in Sugar needs to be improved.

OurStories is a cool activity that allows people to make little video testimonials with geolocation data, and Google is providing a GMaps backed global repository for children with XOs. It would be nice to set up a OurStories server myself so I could record and publish people’s reactions to my XO.

Guido van Robot (official site) seems fun too. I’d like to see a free software Drawbot that ran on the platform. (Drawbot was originally by Just van Rossum, an exceptionally talented font tools hacker and, having met him, a very cool and nice guy too :-)

OLPC has an official policy on free software written by no less than Mako.

(I’ve met Mako a couple of times now and he’s totally awesome, reflected in his recent election as the replacement for Eben Moglen on the FSF board, a longtime Debian contributor and a primary developer of freedomdefined.org.)

The wireless system is actually a “system on a chip” - a complete computer that runs separately to the main computers - and I think it runs a proprietary operating system, sadly. In 2006 Jim Gettys suggested that a free version was being worked on, but I’m not sure how that has fared.

Jim Getty’s blog is worth keeping an eye on, as is Ivan Krstik’s blog. Ivan made a post about the recent Microsoft dual booting stuff which is better covered by the guy who runs xochat.org.

xochat.org is a community-run Jabber server that allows you to connect to an “internet neighbourhood” instead of using the mesh networking to make the neighbourhood mirror your geolocation. To switch to is, start the Terminal activity and run “sugar-control-panel -s jabber xochat.org” and then reboot Sugar with the standard X11 Ctrl-Alt-Erase three finger salute. (This is originally ship2.jabber.laptop.org which is what you need to mesh with neighbouring XOs)

Ivan has also explained how to dual boot debian and xfce4 - the XO is built with dual-booting in mind :-) - although this isn’t totally neccessary as you can run X-in-X for the same effect (although memory usage would be a problem; and that article recommends proprietary Opera which is bad.)

OLPCNepal has a good introduction to the project’s concepts

Bunnie (of xbox mod chip fame, and who made the Chumby) has reviewed the hardware and loves it.

OLPC has a jobs page, although their positions are all very elite :-)

Creative Commons License
The OLPC Arrives! by David Crossland, except the quotations and unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


5 Responses to “OLPC Arrives!”

  1. Dan Reynolds on January 20th, 2008 10:07

    Huh? That Economist article you linked to was rather good, or so I thought…

    Articles you don’t agree with = bad journalism?

    What about the reporter and his editors’ ‘freedom’?

  2. Generation YES Blog » Blog Archive » Nice OLPC Roundup - OLPC Arrives! on January 20th, 2008 17:16

    […] David Crossland writes a nice post on the Understanding Limited blog with links to many, many resources and blogs (including my OLPC XO - Top Ten Checklist for G1G1 Reviews post) for people who have an XO. It’s a great reasource, even if you are just a fan of the project.  He includes the must read XO community-news mailing list,  cheat codes» for booting the XO in special ways, a discussion of why it doesn’t ship with Flash, and much more. […]

  3. David Crossland on January 20th, 2008 23:12

    To be clear:

    Articles I don’t agree with can be good journalism. In this case, I think there was poor journalism. I also disagree with critics of the project who make cogent arguments against it, because I think it is a net gain for those it touches.

    I don’t see anything in what I wrote that speaks to the reporter and his editors’ freedom of speech; I disagree with what they say, but I defend their right to say it.

  4. Dan Reynolds on January 20th, 2008 23:33

    …but it is kind of broad. You link to the article saying:

    This is saddening because bad press for OLPC, to an audience of influential people, is not good. In an ironic postmodern way it is good though - more evidence of the death of journalism through ignorance continuing unabated; the sit-at-your-desk-reading-press-releases journalism ‘submarine’ has had the plug pulled on its water tank and is quickly being exposed for the crock it is.

    You don’t actually criticise what was actually written… but yoy put it in the “bad” shoe box. Not much defending going on there, really.

    To me, an outsider (but one who does have some degree of technological fluency), the author seems to raise valid points, like who the real audience of the computers is (the people who buy them in bulk for their nations’ children) and why those people may or may not be happy with the product. So I don’t understand the dismissal.

    The author seems to me to be someone who just isn’t necessarily a member of the whole “movement.” Why do you call that bad journalism? This project will not succeeded if only the believers push for its adoption.

  5. David Crossland on January 21st, 2008 00:47

    The main point of my criticism of the Economist was in the preceding paragraph, and is: The journalist’s expectations that the software is in a final state are unfounded, and reflects poorly on the rest of the article (which I ignore)

    I have a natural interest in the technology rather than the social policy, which is why I focused on it. I’d be happy with that article if it kept to the social policy issues analysis and away from poor quality technical review.

    The software problems that they point out are typical of currently-in-major-development software, and that kind of software is typically available from both proprietary and free software developers these days. You don’t need to be part of the software freedom movement to have heard of “alpha” and “beta” software releases. Not only is the OLPC software currently in major development, but it is also no where near finished; a major update, akin to the move from Panther to Leopard for Apple users, is due imminently.

    I’d expect a fair review to comment on current problems but balance that with the above.

Leave a Reply