XO laptop: Better to give, receive or both?

The Get 1, Give 1 promotion for the $100 laptop is very tempting.

Michael Tiemann
Michael Tiemann is president of the Open Source Initiative and vice president of open source affairs at Red Hat. Disclosure.
Michael Tiemann
4 min read

I woke up Monday to the announcement that starting September 24, the XO laptop (famous as the little laptop that could) will be made available to buyers in so-called first-world countries, in quantities less than 100,000 units. In fact, for less than $400 you can give one and receive another--an excellent solution to an age-old moral dilemma.

I just returned from a trip to Brasilia, where I had a chance to meet with the person who is overseeing the entire "One Laptop Per Child" initiative in the country. There are two schools giving the XO a try--one in Sao Paulo and in Porto Alegre--and I've already heard first-hand reports of the transformative effect these laptops are having on the children. These computers are becoming libraries and telephones, cameras and games, laboratories, studios, and conservatories that engage students just as they were designed to do. And so much better than we dared to hope.

In less than a week I leave for a trip that will take me to Beijing, among other places. Beijing is a modern marvel, a rapidly rising metropolis with more wealthy people than any other city I have visited. But China as a country also has more rural poor than perhaps any other country. And this brings up a second dilemma: if I get an XO for my daughter, should I designate the second for Brazil, which seems to be building success upon success, or to China, which was an early hopeful for the One Laptop project, but which has become distracted by a variety of competing offers and competing visions for how open-source and green computing technology can help to realize a child's learning potential. (And do I get that choice? Perhaps the project has it's own priority list and it will make the choice for me...)

I will say these things about the prototypes that have been floating through the offices here in Red Hat:

  • The little green XO computers are an instant attractor to all who see them for the first time, which says something about both the design and the vision of the project, even if the software and hardware are both a bit late.
  • The transluctant display is awesome, and it can be read in broad daylight. I hate the fact that my $3,000 laptops are too dim to read outdoors, and run too hot to place on my lap. A lightweight, crisp screen that can be read almost like a book while burning almost no power is an idea whose time has come.
  • The Sugar interface is intuitive to those who have never used a computer (and, sadly, not to those who have). This reminds me of the day one of my professors at U. Penn was asked to evaluate one of the prototype Apple Macintosh computers. The year was 1984, and professor Harvey Garner was the Joe Friday of our CS department. If you've ever peeked inside a computer's accumulator, you know that whether it's doing 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, or 64-bit arithmetic, there's at least four other bits involved: C(arry), N(egative), Z(ero), and (o)V(erflow). Those four bits are the clues needed to tell whether the other bits are telling the truth. When Steve Jobs asked Harvey Garner what he thought, Dr. Garner reportedly asked, "How do I get rid of this desktop? I want to see the command prompt. There is a real computer in here, yes? I want to interact with that." Without being able to see the status bits, he was not prepared to trust any computer.
  • One cannot look at the computer without becoming conscious of the children it is intended for. How many other gadgets do that?
  • And if one has read The Diamond Age, well, you know what this means.

And now, not only is the XO gearing up for production, but my own daughter, blissfully unaware of this particular laptop, is starting to lobby for a laptop of her own. In her own mind, she's got it good: we agreed to give her a 500Mhz Apple Powerbook (color!) laptop from 1998 when she's 13--five years from now. She's using it today, writing stories mostly, but happily living the dream that someday it will be hers. What might change in her life to get an XO this year? What might change knowing that unlike the Apple Powerbook, which is a dead product, she's got a living product that she can customize, configure and learn? I think it's too soon to tell, but I know that had it been me when I was that age, I'd have short-circuited years of aimless academic searching, having found something I was born to do.

Should I get one for her and give one to another with the new Get 1, Give 1 program? It's awfully tempting...if only it came with a Dvorak keyboard. (And yes, our own family still needs to work out a Safe Internet policy, but that's coming.)