the olpc is a pile of crap

April 27th, 2008


So I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and since I’m currently ProCrastinating making breakfast (the Crastinating that Pros use™!), let me waste your time for a second:

I bought an OLPC laptop off a local 9-year-old kid about three months ago. I found it for sale on CraigsList, God help me, and I picked it up after work at his house. He met me at the door — my suspicion was his dad had bought him the laptop via the G1G1 promotion, and he was flipping it to raise some quick cash. After I checked it out, I asked him “So why are you getting rid of this?” and he replied that the house “already had a laptop” and he “had to start saving up for a car.” The whole transaction was mighty fishy, but what the hell.

I took the little green laptop home, opened it up, and it became immediately apparent that the thing was full of porn — but a 9-year-old’s idea of porn. Browser window after browser window of Pamela Anderson, Carmen Electra, and JPEGs from “Maxim.” Recent search terms included the phrase “AOL Chat” and “bust.” Apparently, the kid was in a fevered titty frenzy and couldn’t figure out how to erase the details of his porny excursion from the OLPC’s journalled history.

In fairness to the kid, I couldn’t figure it out either. And here lies the problem.

The OLPC’s hardware is great — the screen is gorgeous, and once you figure out the somewhat stupid ear antennae that lock the thing shut, it’s easy to open it up and get it situated. The keyboard is mushy and SD slot is in a moronic location, but hey, these are forgivable issues. What is not forgivable is the dismal state of the “Sugar” system software that the OLPC ships with. It’s a shambles.

It doesn’t sleep so the battery just drains and dies. Wifi is spotty to begin with and connecting to any password protected wireless networks is iffy. The “neighborhood view” shows some networks as “close” and some as “far” but it’s completely random by design(!) and doesn’t actually mean anything.

It gets much worse: the web browser crashes out again and again. Flash videos won’t play without arcane terminal commands. The concept of “cut and paste” doesn’t exist. The much-vaunted “Learn Python” button that would expose the source code doesn’t even pretend to work. You can’t program an “Activity” without signing up for a “developer key” via a strange and convoluted method. Just check out the wiki — the OLPC developers themselves can’t figure it out.

These are all showstoppers, but what’s worse is the Sugar interface.

The Sugar user interface running on top of Fedora is beyond opaque. Anyone who makes excuses for the OLPC software is a crazed zealot — it’s just awful by any metric. It’s easy to see what they were going for — a unique, non-Windows, non-linguistic discoverable interface — but it’s a complete swing and a miss. I expect most kids will be scratching their heads and eventually giving up in frustration.

And here’s the frustrating thing: All the OLPC really needed to be is a piece of hardware wrapped around Firefox. If the OLPC developers just concentrated on getting together a top notch browsing experience, the rest could take care of itself. All the “Activities” bundles written in Python could just be webapps living locally. And Ubuntu provides a top-notch browsing experience today, not in the future, but today, with great performance and nice fonts and Flash and everything Just Working. Clearly the future of educational software is on the web, or via webby technologies, but because the OLPC guys were so in bed with Fedora and so in love with Python, that option is off the table.

It’s a shame. The OLPC laptop itself is lovely hardware, but the project has been capsized by open source fundamentalists who were too in love with their own half-baked ideas. It pains me greatly to say it, but I’m looking forward to getting Windows XP running on it so it has at least some use — and that’s about as serious a condemnation of the OLPC project as I can imagine.

~Jeff

10 Responses to “the olpc is a pile of crap”

  1. Caleb says:

    Damn, thanks for clarifying just how bad the OLPC is. I had some ideas, but it’s good to know that things like the sleep flaw and massive lack of browser functionality exist. Much appreciated!

  2. Evan says:

    Are you sure the kid didn’t just screw the OLPC up completely. Did you try a fresh install of the OS? If you hate it, I’ll take it off your hands. I don’t have a job right now, so I’ll accept it as a donation.

  3. Jordan says:

    I had one and I can vouch for everything he said.

  4. Jim says:

    The real problem I had with the XO was the power management didn’t deliver on its promises. Everything I read said to expect 7-10 hour battery life, and instead I got stuck with 4 or less. Turns out the firmware for the XO wasn’t anywhere near finished when they released, so that 3 watt power consumption they kept touting is actually 7-10 watts.

    I got the machine with the intention of hooking it up to a small solar panel and having a truly gridless computer, but until their firmware supports all those nifty power management features, this is just a pipe dream.

    (caveat: About a month after I got the XO closed it and haven’t looked at it since. If the OLPC guys finished that firmware, then maybe I can do this after all)

  5. cauley says:

    Jeff, is that you? You look like hell, man. Younger, but bad younger. And chubby.

  6. Robin says:

    I have a OLPC. I changed the desktop from Sugar to XFCE. Installed OpenOffice plus a few other applications and all is well.

    Sugar is great for little kids but for normal users you have to install other apps and/or change the desktop.

    But with what I am reading, the idea of the OLPC is to get information into the hands of children. The OLPC can be used as an electronic book outdoors which makes it great for the market it was designed for.

    One other person I work with has one with a version of Ubuntu on it. So take your pick of how you want it to work.

  7. […] the olpc is a pile of crap […]

  8. Jeff says:

    Cauley, what can I say: I love ham

  9. […] here by Ivan Krstić, recently displaced of the OLPC project. Man, we all had such high hopes for this P.O.S., but it looks like Negroponte’s ego and gung-ho adherence to the flimsy tenets and dogma of […]

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