Laptops used by children in the remote villages of developing nations must be cheap, compact, easy to repair, rugged and power-stingy. Business users stuck on a flight, say, from New York to Paris, would likely want the same thing.
So here's the question: Is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO computer a good tool for business users?
Take a quick look at the XO and you can't help but be impressed with the clever design, both technically and physically. Hardware-wise, it has an AMD Geode LX-700 processor running at 433 MHz, with 256MB of RAM and a 1,200-by-900 display. It's not a speed demon, but it's designed to sip electricity lightly, not to run an Unreal Tournament.
It costs $200 to send an OLPC to a child in the developing world, and it's not available in the UK. However, OLPC ran a "Give One Get One" scheme in the US and Canada in 2007, whereby a $400 donation bought one laptop and sent one abroad. It is said that this scheme will be repeated in the UK in due course, so OLPCs may be available.
After having an XO for a couple of weeks, I can say that it's clearly a great machine for kids. My son loves to play with it, using the Python tutorials and animation programs. However, I have had less success. Some of the issues I encountered are early teething pains, some are dissonance between the needs of an adult computer user and the included software, and some are physical problems with the system.
Good news, bad news
First, the good news. When I have to lug a laptop onto a plane, this would be the one I'd want. It is tiny compared to a traditional laptop, and it could actually fit on a coach-class tray table without it encroaching on my belly. It is also more likely than "traditional" laptops to last an entire flight without needing a recharge. According to informal tests conducted by some early purchasers, the battery lasted three and a half hours of normal use and, with the backlight off (which downgrades it to high resolution black and white), it lasted about five and a half hours. By the way, in black and white mode, with its swivel-screen, the XO makes a dandy e-reader.
There are some significant "buts," however. For one thing, the current Linux image (which is based on Fedora Core 6) has a few bugs. Most notably, you can't attach to a WPA-encrypted wireless network (the passphrase fails). Although some users have posted work-arounds on the Web, none of them worked for me. This supposedly will be fixed in the next image, so by spring it hopefully won't be an issue. By the way, this isn't an issue with public Wi-Fi zones, which typically don't use WPA.
I also ran into trouble trying to access my workplace Wi-Fi network. Like many corporate wireless networks, I need to open a Web browser and log in to get access. However, our corporate network uses a nonstandard SSL certificate, and the XO browser doesn't have the option to accept such a certificate. Instead, it just displays a security violation error and won't open the page. The browser is XulRunner, the engine inside Firefox.
Software, media and a big gotcha
The most useful included software applications for adult users are the word processor, browser and calculator. The word processor is AbiWord, a Spartan but functional package. It can handle basic tables and embedded images but doesn't have a spell checker or support fancier formatting. The most notable missing software on the XO is an email application.
Still, these deficiencies don't spook me because this is a Linux system, which means that at least a few of the initial 150,000 XO purchasers are likely to create new versions of the operating system more suited for adult users.
There is also some simple multimedia support using the onboard camera and microphone; it should be possible to make it do video chat with the right software. Another potentially intriguing capability is XO's collaborative authoring mode. XO systems on the same wireless mesh network (which is set up automatically whenever there's more than one XO around) can edit each other's documents. This could be a useful tool for collaborative tasks in a workplace, similar to Google Docs, but on a local scale.
However, the major problem for adult users is likely to be the XO's membrane keyboard, which obviously was chosen for durability reasons. The feel of such keyboards is highly unsatisfactory, particularly for adult-size fingers, which tend to slide off the keys rather than getting a definitive keypress. And not surprisingly, the keyboard is scaled for young hands; its size is awkwardly between a thumb pad and a real keyboard. It's better than a thumb pad, but don't expect blazing word-per-minute rates with it. The touchpad is serviceable if a little oversensitive.
So what's the verdict on the XO for business users? While many of the design goals for laptops used by children in emerging nations and for Western business users are similar, the XO won't cut it in the corporate world, which, of course, isn't part of OLPC's ambitions in any case.
As currently equipped, the software doesn't match the needs of business users. More important, though, the keyboard won't work for most business users. Still, the device, and particularly its software, is likely to change quickly, so it's worth keeping an eye on the XO if you're looking for a durable, long-lasting and inexpensive laptop for the road.
With the likely purchase options, you'll probably end up buying two and helping out a child in another part of the world. And of course, it's worth considering doing that anyway, even without getting one for yourself!
You can't buy this in the UK yet, but it's a well designed small Linux laptop that is very sparing on power - although the keyboard is not good enough for adults to touch type. It could be worth watching for the "give one get one" scheme to launch over here - or just donate one to the third world, anyway.