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In Tuvalu I experienced my first OLPC reality test. I’ve touched them before, drooled over them at an expensive conference in Wellington while I stuffed my face with Atlantic salmon and caviar finger food one morning… but up until now, I had never had the opportunity to see or use them in the context they were designed for. What follows are my notes on such an opportunity, using brand new OLPCs in a wiki training workshop for teachers in Tuvalu, a small Island nation in the middle of the South Pacific.
The workshops I’ve been running here are for the Tuvalu Ministry of Education. They have me here for a Wikieducator initiative called Learning for Content (L4C). Many primary and secondary teachers from around the Islands of Tuvalu are here, as well as people from non government organisations and service areas in Tuvalu. The organisers and I thought it would be a good idea to run the session on the new OLPCs, and expose the teachers to what was coming to their students.
We are working in a large room on the second floor of the Government building, over looking the Funafuti atol. It is very hot in that room all day, and I try to keep prime position in front of the only fan. There is a wireless network set up from a main satellite connection and distributed through a Linksys wireless router situated in the room with us. The OLPCs were fresh out of the box and the IT person had only had the afternoon before to familiarise herself with them.
The OLPC experience:
The first thing I noticed (but already knew about) was the radically different operating system interface is. It doesn’t look anything like any Linux distribution I have used before and it certainly looks nothing like any Windows or Mac OS. This operating system is out on its own again, a 4th operating system if you will, and while I at first was mighty impressed by it back in Wellington while eating caviar, I have serious reservations about it here in Tuvalu…
The next thing I noticed was the browser. At first glance it looks a little like Google’s Chrome, but less than 3 clicks around you soon realise that its not of course. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how to get new browser tabs happening, and I suspect that tabbed browsing is not possible! The apparent absence of such an important browser feature had me seeing doubts about the approaching workshop. If I couldn’t even work out the browser, let alone the operating system, how the hell was I going to run a workshop for 40 odd people through it over the next 6 days?
Its funny, it only takes one peculiarity of a thing – compared to what we’re used to of course, and we start to look out for more and see only the faults. I started to notice the differences a lot more from this point on, not in terms of innovation – though on reflection I can see many aspects of the software that could be seen as innovative, but more in terms of usability and limitations to what we needed to be doing.
I couldn’t work out how to save and recover files from a USB. Admittedly I was by now very short on time and didn’t look long or hard for it, but I was continuously thrown off by new icons I hadn’t seen before, trying to work out what signified what and where, and how long a thing took to initiate, how to quit a thing, or how to swap windows. As with most things that require patience, I had to walk away from this one and get the classroom ready for a workshop I was now dreading.
Soon we had somewhere near 20 people in the room for day 1. The nice little charm of the OLPCs turning on started filling the room.. great, everyone found the on button. The IT lady was running around connecting everyone to the wireless network, but each computer was taking a dreadfully long time to connect, often hanging once the access key was entered, or just dropping the connection soon after it found it. I needed a projector to demonstrate things in the workshop, but couldn’t plug an OLPC into the projector. The only other device on hand was a standard 17 inch laptop with Windows Vista on it 😦
I filled some time raving about the OLPCs and how much I was stoked to be in a room full of them, and how they were the thing that inspired Asus and others to start putting out great little things like the Eee PC.
Eventually we had enough OLPCs connected to proceed, and we packed up the 3 or 4 that just didn’t connect or misteriously turned themselves off after a few seconds.
After I had given a little show and tell on the projector it was now a job of going around and showing each person how to find and start the OLPC browser and bring up the wikieducator website.
I’d say about 1/3 of the group had used computers before, and all of those people would have used a Windows operating system. While their intuition seemed to get them at least as far as I had before the workshop, that intuition wasn’t any use beyond that point. We were into a case of the blind leading the blind. No one worked out how to get tabbed browsing going, one guy managed to get a Logitec wireless mouse working (highly recommended btw!), and no one worked out how to save and recover files from a USB. Those who had not used computers much before were not at much of a disadvantage to the rest of us. We were all using computers for the first time it seemed, and so I couldn’t rely on anyone to help others.
And here is my point. It would seem that the designers behind the OLPCs have been so carried away with their design innovation that they lost sight of something critical. That the people on the ground who are going to hand out and help administer these things are likely people who have at least some experience with computers. And like it or not, that experience will have been based on a Windows or Linux operating systems, and probably only in as much as the graphic user interfaces would offer. While I can appreciate innovation and have a high tolerance threshold for new ideas, the differences between the OLPC and any other interface are so great that it simply left me and anyone else who might have been able to assist feeling useless and unable to help, and that will be the OLPCs undoing when they hit the ground they were designed to be used on.
To be honest, I would sooner hand out $400 Asus Eees, just because they don’t need an instruction manual like the OLPCs do. EeePCs run on Linux too, but what the developers of their operating system got right was that they understood how much they could rely on user intuition, in fact I would say that this was a primary element in their design brief. If you’ve never used a computer before, you’ll be able to work out the Asus EeePC. If you have used Windows, Mac or and Linux, you’ll know how to work out an Asus EeePC. What’s more! If your first computer is an Asus EeePC you will easily work it out AND develop computing intuition along the way that will be useful for using Windows, Mac or Linux (which you will inevitably use if your job involves computing in some way, or you start inheriting second hand computers via the electronic waste management center.
The workshop still worked out OK. People got by on the OLPCs and tolerated the frustrations of dropped connection, no right click options, difficult touch pads, overly small scroll bars, and annoying uninformative browser address bars. We got by, but not without a few complaints. We put up with the limitations, and odd peculiarities that I certainly wouldn’t call innovations, and we were able to use the OLPCs for accessing and editing pages on Wikieducator.
I am still mightily impressed with the obvious innovations in the OLPCs. Things like keeping most of the hardware in the screen and so elevating the main vulnerability out of splash zones of spilled drink. (A fan, cranking full tilt around the room WILL sooner or later spill a half empty plastic cup of water across the desk or floor). And I do actually like the keyboard configuration, even without a forward delete key.
But I think it was a terrible mistake to go too far into new territory with the operating system. There are clear advantages to leveraging from experienced people’s computing intuition, but the OLPCs have decided to go way outside that realm and force everyone to learn a whole new metaphor, essentially plonking a 4th operating system on the table. Yes there are innovations in some of that software and interface design (for techno and edu geeks), but OLPC has shot themselves in the foot with mass users. The software innovation would have been better deployed on some other laptop project that wasn’t so reliant on mass take up, or wasn’t concerned with things like relevance and transferability of skills. The similarities between Windows, Linux and Apple are close enough for an intuitive person to migrate between the 3. The OLPC could have (should have) used Ubuntu and leveraged the massive support network out there, but the OLPC is out on its own and too soon… I wonder if they’ll work OK with Ubuntu or Asus Xandros on them? Hackers?
Oh, and by the end of day 2, the heat and humidity seemed to have gotten the better of at least one of the OLPCs.. its touch pad was lifting and seemed to have freed itself from its adhesive. I can’t imagine how they’ll be a few months from now, with the salty, humid air all around us… perhaps OLPCs are designed to withstand that too?
Despite all that I’ve said here, I still love the OLPC – the ideas in it at least. Like I said originally, back in 2005 – OLPCs have more to offer people in the wealthy economies than they do in poorer ones. They have forced computer designers in wealthy countries to rethink their commodities and release cheap, strong, portable and better designed computers at more accessible price ranges. They have lead us to consider the savings possible through the use of free software (at last). And they have indicated to us that it could be possible to develop very cheap computers and so conceivable that everyone have one (if we still think that to be advantageous). But from my experience in Tuvalu, the OLPCs got the software wrong for their mission. The Asus EeePC (arguably a result of the OLPC initiative) got it right, but ironically don’t share the OLPC mission.
To the Tuvaluans I would suggest selling the OLPCs on eBay and fetch the $300 you could get from collectors in the United States and Kingdom, then use that money to buy Asus EeePC or similar. That is if you can’t get another operating system working on the OLPCs.
List of things wrong with OLPCs Operating System:
- The connectivity metaphore on start up is inappropriate for people in areas where connectivity is a long way away. The OLPC is more useful to people in Tuvalu as a device for games, media and typing before it is for connecting to the Internet, so the connectivity interface should not be the main focus at start up.
- That said, we were using wireless connectivity in the Government building, but the OLPCs holding that connection was flakey. We had no trouble keeping a connection to the network on the Windows machines, but the OLPCs kept dropping. Placing a Wireless modem in the room with us seemed to help the situation. Another problem relating to connectivity was the amount of time some of the OLPCs took to connect. Some didn’t at all. All of them need clearer indication of progress in connecting.
- The pop up menu for the operating system is very frustrating and seems to be affected by processing. Sometimes it is slow to initiate and even slower to disappear. I think its better to use the key on the keyboard instead, and turn off the mouse over feature.
- Need better preloaders for the software. When we clicked an icon the software takes a while to load. Sometimes the loader dialog that says “starting” would take too long to appear. The icon does appear in the pie chart indicating active applications, perhaps something in that graphic could more effectively illustrate it as loading.
- The browser must have tabbed browsing! If I missed where it was, then it is too hard to find. There was no right click option on any of the OLPC we were using, and I don’t know if there is meant to be. If the tabbed browsing relies on a right click then we were thwarted. Also, I think the browser needs work on its layout and features. The address bar takes up too much room and for some unkown reason wants to display the page name instead of the URL. The URL is for more useful in terms of information, and having to click into the address bar just to check the URL is just silly. The scroll bars are too small, and especially noticable when managing a website with a scrolling window inside it, like the edit view of a wiki. We didn’t try any ajax, java or flash – but I hope they are good to go!
- I couldn’t work out how to manage files. I could download PDFs ok, but it was a bit of a fumble to display them, and I have no idea how to save them. I tried plugging in a USB but as far as I could tell, no new icon appeared offering me access, and nowhere in the browser of the PDF display could I find how to save the file to the USB.
- I wonder about the touch pad. I am used to using them and use the one on this Asus all the time, but seeing as the OLPCs are so ready to think outside the square, lets rethink the touch pad. If you didn’t have the touch pad, you could have so much more room for keys! Apart from supplying a small mouse (which is infinately more easy to use) I wonder if the game controllers in the screen could substitute a mouse, as could smart use of the tab key. That little blue dial that IBM used in the middle of their keyboard had potential I thought.
- I reckon the operting systemm and software should completely change, and I’d suggest something like what Asus has done. I can certainly appreciate the innovations that I’ve found so far, but the extreme difference between the OLPC and other OS is too great, and will affect the usefulness of the laptops… think of it like Vista.. you are causing stress and lock in by being so different. The OLPC is not the place to experiment if your primary objective is to offer people in poorer econimies to access and exploit opportunities. Of course there is the new opportunity of servicing and adminstering the OLPCs themselves, but that’s hardly sustainable and I hope it wasn’t planned for!