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The New OLPC

TED has a post about the design of the new OLPC [1].

I never liked the previous OLPCs [2], for my use a machine needs a better keyboard than the tiny rubber thing that they had. I understand why they designed it that way, for use in places where it would be an expensive asset it is necessary to make it resistant to water and dust to the greatest possible degree. But in a first-world country where a computer is a cheap item, having a better interface makes sense. I’m sure that I could have plugged a USB keyboard into a OLPC, but having a keyboard integrated as well as an external keyboard is just kludgy.

The new design of the OLPC with two panels (at least one of which is a touch-screen – I hope that both are) is very innovative. With the keyboard displayed on a touch screen there are much greater possibilities for changing alphabet (teaching children to write in multiple languages is a good thing). Of course a touch-screen keyboard won’t allow proper touch typing, but it should still be possible to plug in a USB keyboard – with the additional benefit that it could use both panels to display data when an external keyboard is used.

One of the new uses of an OLPC machine is to play two player games with the players sitting opposite each other. The next logical extension to this idea is to have a multi-user OLPC machine so that two people can use it at the same time (a machine that can run copy of a program that compares to the GIMP can surely run two programs to display electronic books or read email). A large part of the design of the OLPC is based around the needs for children in the developing world, in such cases one computer per home is likely to be common so it would be good if two children could do homework at the same time (or if a parent could check email while a child studies).

Finally the new design is much better suited to reading documents, while they show a picture of a book being read in two panes (similar to the way that paper books are read) I think that a more common use will be to display book text in one pane while using the other pane for writing notes. That would mean that instead of having a full-sized (by OLPC standards) keyboard on the touch-screen they would have to use a small keyboard (maybe with a stylus) or an external keyboard. It is awkward and distracting to hold open a paper book with one hand while writing notes with the other, using one half of an OLPC to write notes while the other half displays an electronic book would be a significant advantage.

The potential utility of the new OLPC design for reading documents is significant enough to make me want to own one, and I expect that other people who have similar interests to me will have similar desires when they see the pictures. While the OLPC isn’t really designed for the use of people like me, it’s unnatural for me to use a computer without programming it – so I expect that the new hardware developments will encourage new developers to join the OLPC project.

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