Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

One Laptop Per Child: First Impressions

I know I am sceptical as to the real benefits of the One Laptop Per Child project as to it’s contribution to fighting poverty in the world. It is now possible to download the virtual image of the OLPC Linux version and I decided to give it a test drive. The main criterium is desktop usability. Does it make sense and will it make life easier on the kids that have to work with it.

The main screen looks okay, but navigating it is very awkward. You have to move the mouse to the top and only then the dark grey menu bar appears. Then you have to move around the edges to get to the bottom where the applications are located.

The buttons in the top left corner deal with various screen layout options. One option allows you to set all applications to the center of the screen.

 Then you realize there are actually only five applciations available: an RSS feed, a chat program, a program that identifies itself with a drum but that doesn’t make sense initially and Abiword. Strange enough the webbrowser is not loaded in the center screen option, but it there.

That’s it. Five applications, three of which you need an internet connection for.

Abiword is already a very light and versatile word processor and adding it to the OLPC really makes sense. But why does it have to be an extremely stripped version of Abiword. Even the complete version leaves a very small footprint. And where is the ubiquitous spreadsheet program? Is it not necessary for the kids in poor countries to be able to calculate?

The inclusion of the webbrowser does make sense, but you can only hope that the schools or the villages are willing to spend some money on a decent internet connection. Since you can hardly expect that, it leads to the conclusion that the disk space spend on chat and the RSS feeds has been wasted.

The overall usability is low. Very low. The interface and the icons are far from intuitive. And, for heavens sake, who decided that purple, light grey and dark grey are attractive colors for children? That team should have been sent to the likes of Toys R Us.

Nope, this interface and the choice of applications only add to my scepticism. The idea behind the project might have been good, but in the end it is disappointing.


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2 thoughts on “One Laptop Per Child: First Impressions

  1. As posted in Wayan’s blog
    I disagree with the notion that this is a daring and novel interface. Yes, maybe there are some quirks with the default Windows interface, the various Linux GUI’s (KDE, Gnome, XfcE etc) or Mac OS X. But what is the main goal of the OLPC project? If you ask me it was meant to put a brigde over the digital divide. The Sugar UI is not helping. On the contrary, it may only make matters worse. Like it or not, the standard for IT use is being set by the rich and powerful.

    My main critique against the current OLPC interface are twofold:
    (1) it is not intuitive. What must a kid conclude when he sees a penguin sitting behind a TV? Of course, he/she immediately thinks “RSS feeds!”.
    (2) three out of five applications (Chat, RSS feeds and WWW) require an internet connection. That makes the usability of the OLPC dependent on outside investments. That diskspace was better used to get more featured version of Abiword on the laptop and Gnumeric to teach the kids mathematical stuff.

    Maybe, as Owen Williams says, this is just the first version of OLPC and quirks are about to get ironed out in the future. There is but one problem: the countries, people and parents that buy the OLPC don’t have the resources to buy upgrades. There is plenty of experience out there that could have been used.

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