I was pleasantly surprised to receive my XO Laptop, formally known as the $100 Laptop for the One Laptop Per Child non-profit, and I just spent a couple hours playing with it. It is the cutest, coolest piece of gear I have in the house. I would venture to say that it’s WAY cooler than my MacBook Pro 17″ which is, basically, a production workstation. Sure, the XO is not very fast, is made of the type of plastic that’s used for toddler toys, and the “keyboard” is a chicklet-style membrane that is not designed for touch-typing. There isn’t a hard drive, and it doesn’t run Windows or a window system for that matter. So what good is it you ask? It’s good for getting education and computing into the great outdoors, that’s what. It is the most exciting thing I’ve seen in quite some time. Yes, I even think it’s cooler than the iPhone.
Admittedly, it is designed for smaller hands than mine, and in terms of speed you can practically feel the tiny processor grunting to itself like a jogger huffing I CAN!!! toward the top of a mountain as tourists stare curiously at him from their air-conditioned rental cars. Fast, it isn’t. It reminds me a lot of one of the microcomputers I wanted when I was 12, the Sinclair ZX80. Like the Sinclair, the XO makes thrifty use of its limited memory. And like microcomputers of the early 80s, the XO is open. Open Source, in fact. The guts of the software are accessible, so this is a machine that people just getting introduced to computers will be able to learn on. What’s really exciting, though, is the quality of the I/O. There’s a camera, microphone, speakers, a high-res sunlight-readable display, and self-organizing mesh networking all built in. For expansion, there are USB ports and a memory card slot. You can take this computer on outdoor adventures with you, take pictures and notes, and share your findings with your peers around you. I find this incredibly exciting.
I haven’t really played with the software at all yet, but I’m looking forward to trying to use this machine quite a bit as my primary “on the go” laptop to see what it’s like. When I’m traveling around I usually just take notes anyway in my reporter-style Moleskine. The wireless networking capabilities of the XO should make this a good coffeehouse companion, though the keyboard is not suitable for touch typing at all.
Fortunately for me, the XO recognized my treasured IBM Model M 84-Key Space Saver Keyboard, which I plugged through a PS2-to-USB adapter. Seemed to work fine with the machine. When you put the XO into tablet mode, you end up with a very compact word processing station that is high-resolution and usable in direct sunlight. While the XO is supposed to run for quite a while on batteries (especially with the backlight off), the additional current drain of the Model M keyboard might reduce battery life further…I have no idea.
Anyway, it’s here in time for Christmas, so I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time looking at the development environment. It might be neat to develop some portable tracking tools for the machine, if only for my own amusement.