In a fairly early post I did at "TalkBMC", I wrote about One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and the possible future consequences of such a project. I called the post "The Linux Inflection Point". Even though posted that on April 13th, 2006 (A Thursday....), I think its main points hold up fairly well.
What has not quite come to pass that OLPC was hoping for is that their little XO-1 would be 100.00 USD or less by now, and that therefore it would be more widely adopted than it is. They had the same problems predicting the future as all would-be Cassandra's: The future marches to the beat of not only its only drummer, but has eddies and counter-currents that make it utterly impossible to predict even with the best information. Who would have thought that 40 years after we put two men on the moon, and safely returned them that we would barely be in space at all anymore?
OLPC's problems are many, and what they exactly are is a point of much debate and opinion. Some think they ran afoul of not being ready to sell the units to individuals rather than to governments more than anything else. Others think it is that the unit was too threatening a technology to be allowed to succeed.
OLPC Unintended Consequences
The little AMD Geode chipped, Linux based XO-1 is surely, especially back then, a counter cultural device. Of the many stories around its creation one is about the falling out with Intel over the CPU. It makes sense that, as a hardware reference platform designed to be as inexpensive and durable as was technologically possible, the XO-1 did not need many different mother boards and competing chip sets. While Linux would not really care that much one way or the other, the underlying design would get more expensive, and they were having enough trouble getting down to the 100 USD price point. When I bought mine during the first Give One Get One program, it came to 188 or 198 USD for each unit.. nearly 400.00 for two of them. The current G1G1 program, being run at Amazon.com has them for 199.00 today: Three years, and the price has not budged.
The Intel Classmate, Intel's answer to the XO-1 is also around the price point: When researching that for this article it was 200.00-549.00 was the range, depending on features. None of these are the 100.00 US per unit that was the hoped for design goal, based off the prediction that as we moved forward in time, and various sub-components became more and more commodity priced, the total would be nearing 100.00. That is not what happened. We took a left turn. We got "Netbooks" instead.
Are Netbooks Notebooks?
Short answer yes. But it is a silly question. So are Laptops. The "L" in OLPC is "Laptop" after all... and the little XO-1 was arguably the first "netbook"
Microsoft found itself in a very unhappy place when all this OLPC, ClassMate, and then later the wave of Netbooks came flooding out. The same ideas and tech and OS behind the OLPC and the Intel Classmate were making a new class of computers called "Netbooks". Aside: The Classmate has a Windows option, but also has several versions of Linux available for it.
One of the funniest recent wars of words was over the label "Netbook". Microsoft has had to revive Windows XP, and drop it's price to around 10 USD per unit to be able to get installed on these inexpensive "NetBooks". In the process, Microsoft has been tell all who will listen that a Netbook is much a small Notebook Computer. At the core of this is more than semantics: It all comes back to which version of MS Windows one can legally run on the Netbook. MS puts limits around the amount of RAM and various other parts of the computer in order to qualify for their special upcoming Windows 7 "starter edition". The only way MS can kill XP is to have a Netbook OS. These limits will not stand. They can not. Already MS had to back off on their plan to artificially limit the number of running processes on the Netbook edition because of the howls of protest, not to mention threats to just put Linux back on as the primary OS.
So, while of course a Netbook is just a small Notebook and there are a lot of us that just call them big and little laptops, the Netbook is not going to stay pinned in that category any more than MS was able to hold to limiting processes. OLPC bet that commiditization would continue to drive the price point down, but what we have seen in the last three years is that the bottom arrived at 200 USD, and instead capabilities at that price point increased. A case in point is the much loved Dell Mini-9 Netbook. When it was introduced, there were very few SSD disk options in terms of size (and they only use SSD "disks"), and all were small. Mine was a 2GB SSD unit that I paid (you guessed it) 200.00 USD for. I have since doubled the RAM to 2GB, and increased the SSD to 32GB, and with an SSD unit that runs 4 times faster. I had a choice of a fairly affordable 64 GB unit, and a less affordable 128 GB SSD. Either way, all of these prices had fallen, and the speed had increased if anything faster than Moores Law would have predicted.
200.00 seems like a pretty had wall to get through right now, but what we are getting for that money keeps getting better and better. And I saw out local Microcenter is now selling Acer 15 inch, full size laptops for 299.00..... With more screen, CPU, memory, and disk capacity than a Netbook. Not as portable, to be sure, but still.
32 GB SSD on a Netbook?
The first thing many folks did with a netbook of course was to turn it back into a computing device like what they already had in some other size. I installed Linux Mint on my Acer Aspire One, and loaded it up with Firefox and Chrome, but also OpenOffice and Seamonkey (for the offline HTML editor) and so forth. The probe now is the same as the problem three years ago: The Internet is not everywhere here yet. A Netbook has to be able to work offline to be useful. Which means enough local memory and storage to run applications.
Apple learned this with the iPhone quickly enough. People saw the device, and the first thing they wanted was not to run web based apps, but locally based ones. Apple being Apple then created the App Store, and had 1.5 billion apps download in just over a year!
The iPhone is more or less 100% Internet connected, and still people wanted local apps. Either people have trouble changing paradigms, or people don't yet trust the Internet. I'm in that later group, although more from the point of view that I want what I want and I want it now. I don't want to take a chance that the Internet will not be available when I want to do something like, say for example, write a blog post.
And Then Came Apple
It would be silly to deny that the iPhone has been a real inflection point in the smart phone market. The iPhone, especially the new 3Gs, are as much sub-netbook form factor netbooks as they are iPhone. I tend to think of mine most as an email and web browser platform that can also make phone calls.
The rumors are running fast and deep right now that Apple is going to get into the Netbook category of computing devices, and that when they do, the price point is going to shift *up*. towards 700 or 800 USD rather than the current 250.00-400.00 (my estimate, based on shopping at Fry's and Microcenter). Being Apple, it is expected that they will do what they have done over and over: Redefine the category. An Apple laptop does not actually cost more than any other on a feature by feature basis, it is just that they do not make a unit with the same specs as the lower cost laptops.
The best guide to what an Apple netbook will be like is probably to look at how different an Apple iPhone was when compared to the other smart phones of just over two years ago. What Netbooks will look like two years from now is probably also clued in when one looks at the smart phones of today. The influence of the iPhone is everywhere, even if it has not yet been matched feature for feature.
That is just me acting Cassandra-ey. I need to be careful. Heinlein says that Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved. :) To be clear though: I have no inside info here: I just think it likely there will be an Apple Netbook, and that it will look nothing like my Acer Aspire One or Dell Mini 9. That it will do and be things I want, and that I will get one because it will do and be things I never thought about till I saw it.
The Foggy Future
The future then is as foggy as ever. Web 2.0. Cloud Computing. Browser based apps. Throw in Apple. And Google. And Microsoft's inevitable counter moves. Lots of things will change, and the low end of the computer market is going to be a rich place to be.
I worry though that it will be mostly features and functions that the financially better off countries can afford. OLPC may have started off a whole revolution that is still unfolding, but the *need* is still there for the worlds kids to learn about technology and computers and to use modern learning tools to speed their educations along. To make it easier for teachers to teach. Only 600,000 XO-1's are out there right now, meaning that not only is the computer to child ratio still utterly wrong, but in fact that they are few enough that they may not be getting to or staying with the children for whom they were intended.
The good news is that, despite its troubles, OLPC is still a going concern. The XO-1.5 is a simpler version of the original XO, with fewer parts and an even better wireless radio (My XO-1 already pulls in signal better than any other computer I have). That should map to even higher level of sturdiness: Something that the XO-1 was no slouch at. Come 2010 the XO-2 should arrive, using less power (about 1 watt!) with a target price point of 75 USD!. Meanwhile, even though more expensive, the Intel Classmate has been through three revisions in the same time that the XO-1 has been through, more or less,a half revision. I am sure that they, and all the other netbook makers, are going to have to respond to this new hardware and price point.
I hope that Amazon still has the G1G1 program for the XO-2. I'll be wanting a copy, and to send a copy to a child somewhere else on the planet that needs one.
Can I have Sugar With That?
One of the better bits of news, to me, came out of the challenges of building both the hardware, the OS, and the user interface. At the end of the day, this attempt to control so many aspects of the XO-1 led to straining the resources of the project, and it did not really leverage the Open Source community as it could have. That has been rectified.
Sugar is the simple to use, multi-cultural, kid oriented user interface originally designed for the XO-1. It is now spun off, and is at sugarlabs.org. To be honest, I wish my XO-1 was running Gnome or some other more familiar X desktop: I realize that is because I use Linux nearly every day, and am familiar with the usage paradigm of computers as it has developed over the last 40 or so years. I have resisted temptation to install something like Fedora 11, and am current running the latest 8.2.1 release. It looks like I may have to make the jump to Fedora or Ubuntu in the near future though. OLPC is getting out of the OS business, letting the distros deal with the platform support. That is as it should be. Again, this is a far better way to leverage the Open Source community.
Soon I will have to choose not just a distro, but which user interface. Sugar will be one of those choices, but I may decide to move to something else, if for no other reason than curiosity. This *is* Linux. I can always put it back the other way.
Kids who have never seen a computer pick up an XO-1 and understand Sugar immediately. With it spun off, not only will more people find it easier to participate in its development, more platforms other than the XO-1 will be able to use it. In fact, I count 8 Linux distros, plus documented ways to use it on OS.X and even MS Windows.
I really love this. Now the goal of helping the children of the world is less tied to the politics and maneuverings, the technologies and the missteps of the companies/foundations of the world. At the same time, the disruptive change that was the XO-1 is still there, still innovating.
Of particular interest to me is the idea that the XO line of computers are meant not to be speedy or feature rich, but to just be a rugged platform that can ingest power from a wide variety of sources, last for years, and ultimately are not really about the computer itself but what they represent. How they can help kids.
It occurs to me that the space program might like these XO's. The way they are designed meets with the design goals of traveling in space. The less power something uses, the better, when you are standing on Mars and the sun is farther away. The more reliable and rugged, the less spare parts you have to carry around. They would need different keyboards though....
It will be interesting how these efforts, among many other influences, will drive the consumer choices we have. How Apple and others will respond. I am not even going to try to predict it, other than to say Linux will be in there somewhere.
- The postings in this blog are my own and don't necessarily represent BMC's opinion or position.