Sunday, December 28, 2008

OLPC and IPhones

My son was given a One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) laptop this holiday season. It came in a neat little box with icons on each side. The neatness continued as we unpacked it, revealing a sleek white and green plastic lozenge with a handle. A bit of effort was needed to figure out how to open the thing, but we were pleased that it fired up immediately, not requiring a 12 hour charging cycle.

For those not familiar with the OLPC project, the idea is to create $100 laptops that can be given to children worldwide to try to bridge the technology divide and empower young people to use technology. The purchase of our OLPC was actually paired with the gift of a second OLPC to a Third World nation.

My son already has a laptop, it turns out, but I was bound and determined to set-up and try the OLPC. My fun began with trying to get build 706 of the Linux OS to recognize our WiFi network. The problem is that I have a hidden SSID (non-broadcast) for security reasons (this is security through obscurity, which is not the best policy, but when paired with strong encryption reduces the threat of easy compromises). So I began the Linux hacks that I am far too familiar with having five Linux servers in my stable.

I could never get the OLPC machine to see the network for more than a moment, unfortunately, so I eventually relented and just exposed my WiFi node. Then I hunted down the upgrade procedure from within a command line shell and spent hours doing an upgrade. The upgrade radically re-arranged the UI's already cryptic iconic interface (I still can't figure out a few of the button functions!) but also brought some improvements to the WiFi connectivity UI.

Overall, though, my wife complained that I spent 6 hours hacking on a computer that was supposed to be useful to African tribesmen. I also have something like 15 years experience with Linux, even running early versions on laptops with experimental X windows servers by 1994 as an alternative to purchasing a Sun "luggable" at the time. I also have innumerable hours pouring over the Linux FAQs/wikis that are always out-of-date or pertain to earlier builds, trying to unravel the correct changes to make something work. I think OLPC has some more work to perfect.

I contrast OLPC with my IPhone 3G that cost only marginally more. If the claim holds true that WalMart may start offering $99 IPhones (8G), the cost would be comparable to the OLPC while providing substantially greater memory capacity. Some of the educational aspects of the OLPC are missing (built-in graphical Python programming, for instance), but everything else is easier and more stable.

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