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My Very Own OLPC XO Laptop
Thursday, December 27 2007 @ 11:54 AM EST

I have one!!! Finally I get to play with the OLPC laptop. It was a gift, and it was given to me in a restaurant, where it created a stir, so there's a story to tell you.

I met, at their suggestion, a couple at a restaurant that has wireless, and there it was. My very own XO. It's so tiny. So light. So cute. It's not all green, by the way. When it's closed, it's white with green trim, with a textured finish so it's not slippery, and it's soooo darling. It draws you. I couldn't even eat until I tried it out.

We sat down and I tried to open it. There's a piece of paper that shows you how, but I've never been one to read manuals, so I struggled a bit at first, because it's counterintuitive to an adult. You lift the antenna ears and then open from what feels like the wrong side. Anyway, it took three of us adults to figure it out, but we did, and I immediately started to play.

The first thing you notice is the keyboard. It feels nice. Like rubber. But small keys take getting used to. Still, as my companions pointed out, it's bigger than a Blackberry keyboard. Within two minutes, a middle-aged man came up to ask, "Is that a One Laptop Per Child laptop?" He had several questions, and as I tried to answer them, we all got friendly and he asked if he could join us. Of course we said yes, and as he pulled up a chair, I continued to answer his questions. I made sure to mention that he can get one and give one up until December 31. Or get one and give 10. Or 100.

He travels a lot on business, and he was immediately impressed by how lightweight the thing is -- it's strikingly so. My favorite laptop of all time until now was a 12-inch Powerbook G4 from Apple, and one reason I loved it was it was so easy to carry on trips. It can't hold a candle to the lightness of the XO. Another thing that struck us all was how beautiful the screen is. It's very, very clear and bright, and when I told him you can read very well in black and white in sunlight, his eyes opened wide. How great is that, I pointed out, for reading ebooks or white papers or whatever you need to read. Just sit on a park bench or in your car or anywhere. By then, I noticed a small group outside the window peering in and watching. Others in the restaurant I could see watching and from their comments, it was clear a lot of people know about this laptop.

So he started to talk about how much easier it would be to use one of them for travel and not have to lug his laptop around. He was tech savvy, more than most, since he asked if it had a hard drive, and when I said no, it ran on flash, he knew what that meant. "Does it run Windows?" he asked next. "No," I said, "This is Linux. Maybe in a year or so, if Microsoft can figure out how to make their code pile smaller, because these laptops are designed not to need a lot of oomph to make them go. If you have a particular Windows application you need to use when you travel," I told him honestly, "this probably isn't for you yet." I told him about AbiWord, though, and that it has email and chat and a browser. And you can download and add on a lot of applications beyond what it comes with preinstalled.

A younger guy sitting at a nearby table then piped up, "Just use Google Docs if you need Word documents." My brain about exploded. Of course! What can't you do that a businessman might typically want to do that he can't do on Google Docs? Note to countries thinking about whether or not to get the OLPC laptop and worrying about Word and Excel and all that: not only does the OLPC have equivalents, but if you want the kids to be able to function in a Microsoft environment, let them go to Google Docs and they can even share the work. An entire class and the teacher can all work on a project together. Here's how some others in the world are already using Google Docs.

"Nobody needs a hard drive any more," the young guy said. And you know what? It's true. So down topples another piece of anti-OLPC FUD.

But here's the best part. After we talked a while, I see a mom with her son, about 7 or 8 walking toward us. He's pulling on her hand, and from across the room, I can see the boy's eyes are fixed on the laptop and he is grinning from ear to ear. He looked like he'd just seen a dear friend. He walked right up to the table, and I immediately turned it his way so he could play, which he did without hesitation, without a word, still grinning.

His mother was nervous, thinking maybe he'd break it, or was being rude to butt in, but I told her I wanted him to play with it, so I could see what he did. He had absolutely NO difficulty at all, asked no one any questions, ignored us all totally, and played and played and played, grinning from ear to ear the entire time.

It's a kid magnet.

He wasn't intimidated by the laptop at all. It was like it was his, that it naturally belonged to him to play with. It was so cute. They have designed something so adorable that children, I saw, are drawn to it.

Kids just get it without a manual, but we, the adults, didn't. I'm fairly geekified, but I had to read up on the OLPC site later to figure out networking (here's the Getting Started page and the Support FAQ) and also how to change the nickname on the laptop. But everything else was so easy and so much fun. The music writing application is one of the most fun things ever. It's my computer dream come true -- to be able to do activities together in real time with others. Of course, for that, I need someone else with an XO laptop nearby. I'm sure it's just a matter of time before that happens. I can't wait. I want to play with the music application, Tam Tam.

There have been some FUD articles in Nigeria about the XO and OLPC recently. Here's just one of them:

Jimson Olufuye, president, Information Technology Association of Nigeria (ITAN) had disclosed that the increase in the price of the laptop further decreases the usefulness of the system to Nigerian children.

According to him, if well planned, indigenous hardware assemblers could distribute laptops with basic developmental tools that would compete favourably with OLPC laptops cost-wise.

"There are no developmental tools in it (OLPC), but we want to ensure that our kids are able to use systems that can be used to develop programmes. We cannot just be consuming we should be able to develop," Olufuye stated....

Also speaking Chris Uwaje, an IT expert said the benefits derivable from the OLPC initiative are limited and does not justify the increase in cost. He noted that initiative would only reduce Nigerian children to consumers and the tools inherent in the laptop do not support development and research.

No developmental tools? What in the world is the man saying? Where do they find people willing to say such untrue things? Let me please remind you that OLPC laptops come with a key that shows you the source code any time you want to see it. Being Linux, you can also change it any time you want to. But it also has something called Develop, so kids and rockstar hackers can write applications themselves or hack the XO apps provided. There's *nothing* you can't do in Linux, you know. It also has Pippy, which is a simple and fun introduction to developing in Python, which is the language underlying a lot of the OLPC software. Here are some more applications that you can download to your XO, if you want to learn to develop. Guido van Robot looks like a fun way to learn.

I noticed in the article that OLPC News's editor, formerly the head of Geekcorps, is used to attack OLPC. So I went to Google and while they pretend to be linked in some way in Google's ads, they are not, which is likely why they had to change their name. [Update: Here's an Intel-Geekcorps partnership, for the record.] They should change it again. It's misleading. They are an anti-OLPC site, in my eyes, since they always manage to say something negative. So don't be fooled.

Here's a 9-year-old girl whose daddy showed her how to program her new XO. Her daddy is Michael Tiemann:

But the real fun began after we started to explore the XO's games. I told her to open Pippy and we played the "guess the number" game. In Pippy, the source code appears on the top half of the screen, and the interaction window (where you enter your name and guess the number) appears on the bottom half. She played the game three times, averaging about 7 guesses per try, and then said "I want to play another game". I suggested she try playing a different game by modifying the parameters to guess a number between 1 and 1,000,000 instead of between 1 and 100. She looked at me with wide eyes. I explained that on the top was a program, the program of the game, and that if she changed a single number in two places, she could change the game itself. She went from a look of "no way" to a look of "OK! What are we waiting for!" in about 200 milliseconds. She started to enter a million, decided that was just a little too large, and changed it to 1000. She hit "run" and sure enough, the prompt asked for a guess between 1 and 1000. She looked at me excitedly. I told her to guess, and after 11 guesses, she got it. She looked at me again, somewhat amazed. I told her she had just programmed the computer. I might as well told her we were going to spend a week in Cinderella's castle—she jumped up, shrieked, and yelled "HEY MOMMY! GUESS WHAT!? I JUST PROGRAMMED THE COMPUTER!"

Needless to say there was much excitement. She tried other modifications, including a version of the game she could win every time on the first try. She got her syntax errors, run-time errors, all the other scrapes and bruises one gets on the way to learning how to program, but she was excited, elated, and became confident! The little scorekeeper in me said:

Negraponte: 1, Doubt: 0.

I had to report this success to the #olpc-help newsgroup, which brough forth some cheers and hoopla. A person logged in as cjb asked "Are you the Michael Tiemann?" I explained that while there are a few, yes, I was the guy who wrote GNU C++. He responded that he was the author of Pippy—how cool is that? The author of the very program was reading the mailing list on Christmas Day!

So far, everything, and I mean everything about the XO has exceeded my expecations: the build quality, the software functionality, and most importantly, the positive effect it has had on my daughter's curiosity and confidence about computers. What a great gift!

A Groklaw member sent me some charming pictures of a couple of little boys very dear to him who also just got their XO laptops, along with a couple of children somewhere else in the world who are probably having just as much fun.

Here one little boy discovers the built-in camera, which is sooo easy to use:

They can make their own videos. That reminds me. If your kids can't live without Adobe Flash, you can install it. Here's how. Here's the built-in recorder, so kids can record whatever they wish. Some children in developing countries contribute to UNICEF/Google's OurStories project, which will give you an idea of how much fun the recording feature can be:

No manual required:

Just have at it:

It's not too late for you to get one too! By the way, if you want to see the grin, it was something very much like the bottom photograph on this page. Update: Here's an older boy in the Western World on OLPC-TV showing how to open it up and use the main features. He doesn't realize that showing code as Linux starts is normal. But he sure gets the rest. And here's a younger boy opening his XO. And an adult shows the calculator and puts it on top of his Macbook Pro to show the size.

Update: Joe Barr has a great article on his XO, complete with a story about solving a hardware issue, and he provides some helpful links and tips.

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