The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Points of views and questions about the OLPC project. What should it be? How could it be better? Where is it needed most? Ask your questions here and let your opinion be known.

The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby tashirosgt » Fri Dec 26, 2008 1:42 am

I think most people in developed countries who buy the OLPC laptop for their children will be disappointed. The operating system that it uses isn't a useful introduction to using Microsoft, Mac, or most Linux window management systems. The interface is no more intuitive than the conventional window manager systems. I doubt it is the type of machine that small kids can discover how to use by themselves.

Having said this, I am open minded about whether this laptop is suitable as an educational tool for the developing world. I can see that NOT being a conventional windows system has practical advantages. There may be places where a fully capable laptop might end up in the hands of corrupt officials instead of kids. Perhaps it is best that the laptop is not useful as an introduction to standard computers. For the same reason, perhaps it is best that the machine is rather slow and not easy to hook to printers and scanners etc. I find the emphasis that the interface places on networking surprising, but I don't profess to be an expert on how often that function would be available in the developing world.

I would be interested in hearing other opinions about why the design of the OLPC laptop is considered appropriate to its mission.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby Freemor » Fri Dec 26, 2008 11:38 am

Although I do appreciate where your views are coming from. I do have to dis-agree with them. I'm a computer consutant. I grew up with computers and that is a large reason why I now work in the IT field. I however did not learn on a Mac, Windows, or Linux machine. I learned about computers on early 8 bit machines, back in the day when each brand of machine was diverse and unique. This was not an impediment to me, nor others my age. A vast majority of my techie friends have fond memories of their Comodore 64's, atari 800's or the like. The XO and many of the activities on it (such as e-toys, pippy, turtle art,etc) introduce children not to a particular desktop enviroment but to the fundementals of programming. This will empower these childern to make any computer system their home. When you understand the nuts and bolts of what is going on with a computer the UI is just window dressing. I for one an very glad that Windows hasn't made it to the XO in any useful way. The Windows/Microsoft paradigm does not encourage people to learn how to create software or even to undersand how things work. If windows were on the XO you'd never see the "view source" function implemented as that is anathema to Microsoft's corporate mindset.

That said, I feel that I should also correct your view about the XO not being a threat if it fell into the wrong hands. The XO is a very capable machine. In fact it is one of the most interesting and unique bits of tech I have seen in many years. It may not be the fastest thing on the planet but it doesn't need to be. The XO has more then enough power for anyone with some hacking skill to do whatever they wanted. There are people like myself that Love the XO for it's open nature and the ability to get right into the machine and muck about. People (most notably Teapot) have moved Ubuntu onto the XO. Others are looking into how to get a touch screen on it. Others are intrigued by the 802.11s mesh networking capabilities that haven't even made it to the mainstream computers yet ( probably 2010-2011 we'll start seeing it show up in the consumer market).

I can see a day 20+ years from now when a new batch of skilled programmers and other IT professionals look back with fond memories on the XO's they got started on. And if people in the "developed" world don't realize that their kids need to know more then just how to point and click, they will be outsourcing all their tech jobs to people that do.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby tashirosgt » Fri Dec 26, 2008 10:40 pm

I don't have any view about the XO being a threat or not being a threat in the hands of a hacker. ( I do suspect most hackers can get their hands on more sophisticated equipment.) My point is that the XO is not likely to be improperly appropriated by, say, a government official for his own use in a MS Windows compatible environment or to give his own kids a head start on learning MS Windows.

As I recall, the 8 bit computers of bygone days were programmed in some version of Basic or in machine language. You have a vision of a generation of programmers being fostered by the XO. Do you mean that they are going to be programmers because the learn to program using the more-or-less gui procedures in things like etoys? Or are you thinking of teenagers who will learn how to add software and use standard programming languages on it? The public relations material from the OLPC project shows young kids using the machine. Is that the usual way that the project is implemented? Or do they give the machine to high schools? It didn't have to have the interface that it has if the point is to foster programmers who will use Basic or C or some "adult" method of programming a computer.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby Freemor » Fri Dec 26, 2008 11:07 pm

I seem to have misunderstood your thoughts on the threat/missappropriateon thing. I think things like that will probably happen even with the current XO program if there isn't good oversight.

As for programming. E-Toys, and Turtle art teach the fundamentals of programming. Things like loops, variables, conditional branches. etc. the Pippy activity is actually a small python development environment, Python definitely qualifies as a Modern language. There is also a more full scale "Develop" activity in the works which will be a more robust and full scale development environment. There is also a wrapper activityfor the GCC so the more advance students can start programming in C. So I certianly think that the XO provides plenty of opportunity to learn current languages and as it is an open source project more advaned students will actually be able to contribute back to the effort.

If you know "how to program" learning a new computer language is often just a matter of symantics. (depending on the language certianly I have seen some rather esoteric languages in my day). I'm not saying that every child that gets an XO will turn into an Uber programer but some will catch the bug and will go that way. My hope for the XO is that it will engender a generation of childern that are computer literate enough to be able to be more then just point-and-click users.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby ektoric » Sat Dec 27, 2008 3:47 am

tashirosgt wrote:The operating system that it uses isn't a useful introduction to using Microsoft, Mac, or most Linux window management systems.

tashirosgt wrote:My point is that the XO is not likely (...) to give his own kids a head start on learning MS Windows.


The sooner we stop thinking "Computers implies Microsoft", and by corollary, "learning to use computers implies learning to use Microsoft", the better off we'll all be.

The very idea is false in so many ways! People like to make (poor) analogies between computers and cars so I'll take the liberty of making a poor analogy as well. If computers was to the operation of a car under the hood, then using Microsoft products is to driving an automatic where you don't know how to change a tire, change your oil, know what a timing belt is, nor even ever heard of a spark plug; and your worldview of a "car" is gas, break, turn, and get fuel.

I say again, "gas, break, turn, and get fuel" is not learning a car, and "learning Microsoft" is not learning a computer.


You are absolutely correct that the XO is not about learning Microsoft. And to that, I say WOOT!
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby tashirosgt » Sat Dec 27, 2008 2:03 pm

I use Linux myself, so I'm not a Microsoft evangelist. What I am trying to grasp is the reasoning of the XO software designers in the decision not have something like a "normal" developed world style interface, be it Mac or Gnome or whatever. I've conjectured one reason not to do it. I can also give a good reason that it should be done. If the project wants to get funding through the get-on/give-one method then it asks people in the developed world to consider how suitable the XO is for themselves or for their kids. I don't think a parent with average computer sophistication will be happy with the XO because neither they nor their children (if they rely only on a parent for guidance) will get much out of it. (For example, see the critical reviews on Amazon.) Parents who have time to investigate the "Sugar" way of doing things and users who like to hack into Linux devices are a different market. They can have a grand old time. But they aren't a mass audience. I'd think that the give-one/get-one would get more customers if it appealed to a wider audience in the developed world.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby ektoric » Sat Dec 27, 2008 9:06 pm

tashirosgt wrote:I'd think that the give-one/get-one would get more customers if it appealed to a wider audience in the developed world.

You're probably right. But given that OLPC is not designing to XO for the developed world, and G1G1 is only a side effect of us enthusiasts, I'd say the argument is moot.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby tashirosgt » Sat Dec 27, 2008 11:41 pm

Then, ethusiast ektoric, can you contribute to answering my basic question? Why is the design of the XO software interface more suitable (or thought by enthusiasts to be more suitable) for its mission of educating children in underdeveloped countries than a more traditional interface? Or do I misunderstand its mission? Or did you mean that you are an enthusiast in the sense of being a person who likes to experiment with Linux devices as opposed to having missionary zeal to save the third world. Admittedly, I am the former kind of person. But my question concerns the XO's educational use.

To say that one does not have to slavishly copy existing systems, that the Microsoft way is not the only way etc. explains why rejecting the traditional interfaces is permissible. It doesn't explain why it is desirable. It would be desirable if part of the plan is to free the underdeveloped nations from the domination of MS, Mac, KDE, Gnome by putting their youth in a different environment. But is that a goal of the project?
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby ektoric » Sun Dec 28, 2008 7:07 pm

http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Sugar
Its goal is to turn the Laptop into a fun, easy to use, social experience that promotes sharing and learning.

Traditional UI's are designed as a launchpad for applications. The goal of Sugar is slightly different. It may or may not achieve its goal (remains to be seen). But if you have a better idea, I invite you to join http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Developers and propose improvements.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby tashirosgt » Sun Dec 28, 2008 8:56 pm

I don't think I want to join a cult - and that's what it sounds like if there isn't any explanation of why the "Sugar" way is better than a more traditional way. On those OLPC wiki pages about Sugar. I don't see any reports of people actually studying (formally or informally) what kind of interface children (in the developed or the undeveloped world) find intuitive and easy to use. It is as if some unspecified group of persons felt wise enough to make the design decisions without any comparisons among alternatives.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby AuntiMame » Mon Dec 29, 2008 2:53 pm

tashirosgt wrote:I don't think I want to join a cult - and that's what it sounds like if there isn't any explanation of why the "Sugar" way is better than a more traditional way.


tashirosgt,
This question is *not* snide, sarcastic, or antagonistic (sometimes I hate the lack of expression in printed communication...) -- where is the documentation that the traditional way is better?

The desktop GUI was developed not out of study and theory, was it? It was simply the easiest thing for the geeks assigned the job of creating a GUI to do -- a metaphor that we, here in the developed Western world, already understood. Study since that time has improved the user interaction, but I doubt the first creators of a desktop GUI thought it would still be in use 30 yrs down the road.

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Silly name. Great stuff for your XO laptop.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby ektoric » Mon Dec 29, 2008 3:52 pm

Historical side note: The GUI as we know it today with its "desktop" notion is based on work at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the 1970's. They also invented the ball mouse and ethernet!
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby tashirosgt » Mon Dec 29, 2008 9:36 pm

I've also heard that Xerox PARC did indeed study how children best interfaced with computers. So I don't think it is correct to say that the traditional GUI interface is the arbitrary invention of some group of programmers.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby ektoric » Mon Dec 29, 2008 10:47 pm

tashirosgt wrote:I've also heard that Xerox PARC did indeed study how children best interfaced with computers.
LOL highly doubtful as the era of PARC developing the GUI was the transitional period of when large research institutions had one large (i.e. room-size) computers that was finally getting small enough for a dozen or so computers to fit into one local area. Computers were used for work and research. Definitely not for play (ok, maybe Pong), but most assuredly definitely not for children.
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Re: The idiosyncratic nature of the OLPC laptop

Postby tashirosgt » Tue Dec 30, 2008 1:21 pm

Material on the web indicates that Kay was influenced by Papert. Kay had a missionary zeal about implementing a certain type of computer for children. Papert did work with children. It's at least plausible that Kay did. You'd have a better argument in favor of the XO if the work at Xerox PARC did involve kids. Kay works (or worked) on the XO didn't he? (As far as interfaces go, working on a terminal connected to a main frame can duplicate the environment of working on a PC. People interested in studying interfaces didn't have to wait for PC's to arrive.)

If a religious cult sets out to help the kids in underdeveloped nations, it's approach will probably be to propagate the cult's beliefs. If an genuine humanitarian project sets out to help such kids, I would hope that it would put the main emphasis on helping the kids. I'm trying to understand how the XO software fits between these two extremes. On the one hand, it could be driven by a group of people who have a "vision" of what a computer for children should be and whose primary goal is to implement it. On the other hand, it could be a driven by group of people who are open minded about what a computer for children should be and have been guided by some kind of empirical investigations of kids in underdeveloped countries. (If so, where are the accounts of these investigations?)
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