When OLPC unveiled their new Android based educational tablet earlier this year I wonder whether the commercial hardware fit with OLPC's traditional mission of bringing better educational opportunities to classrooms no matter how remote or limited.
Today I wonder why it took them so long to make the switch from a proprietary XO Laptop to an XO Tablet running Android.
I was reading a post on the OLPC News blog earlier today about the XO Learning tablet, and how that blogger believes that the XO Learning Tablet renders the XO Laptop redundant, antiquated, and second-rate. I think he has a point:
I recently received an email from a person who is running a small pilot program in Africa. They were seeking my advice on XO Laptops versus XO Tablets:
I currently am working with 4 schools with about 10 XO Laptops in each school. I want to add more computers to these schools this year. I have a choice. I can buy more XO Laptops or I can buy the new XO Tablet. Which do you think is best? We have made progress with the XO Laptop and I have an upcoming appointment with the Ministry.
My response was quite simple and quick: do not waste another penny or minute buying more XO Laptops. They were cutting edge in 2007. They were still cool in 2009. But today the hardware looks dated and without a touchscreen, oh so limiting.
Worse, the XO Laptop never came with any decent software (OS or applications) or content - you always had to hand code your own programs and go begging for ebooks and reference materials.
At first I thought it was a crazy idea, and i set out to show how many advantages the XO Laptop has over a mere tablet, but it turns out the list of advantages is shorter than you might think. The XO Laptop is:
- equipped with a keyboard,
- and is based around an 8.5" sunlight readable low-power screen.
The list of disadvantages include proprietary components, an underpowered single-core CPU on the current model, and a limited development community (far smaller than Android).
The XO Learning tablet, on the other hand, runs Android, and comes with 160 plus apps as well as dozens of books. Can't find the app you need? Go search Google Play and educational websites. Chances are you will find 5 that do what you want. And while it the tablet might technically not be repairable it also doesn't have proprietary components to drive the repair cost up.
I'll grant you that the low-power Pixel Qi screen is a plus, though not in terms of battery life, and I do prefer a keyboard.
But Nate, some of you are thinking, what about battery life? The XO is described as sipping power. Doesn't that give it a clear advantage in remote locations with limited power supplies?
That used to be an advantage, yes, but thanks to advances in battery tech and hardware design a new Android tablet has a runtime about the same as the XO Laptop.
According to Wikipedia, the XO-1.75 laptop (the latest model available) has a battery life of 5 to 10 hours. In comparison, the XO Learning Tablet is specced to have 8 hours of battery life (with only a slightly larger batter).
Don't get me wrong, I think the XO laptop was a great idea when it was conceived. At that time there was really no other way to get a large volume of basic computers to remote classrooms other than to design and build them from scratch, and then load your own educational OS.
But that was in 2007; we are in 2013 now and many of the constraints faced in 2007 don't exist anymore. Thanks to the rise of netbooks and (later) tablets, battery life isn't the problem it used to be and manufacturing costs have been reduced to the point where they are negligible.
At this point there is literally no reason not to run a cost-benefit analysis comparing the XO Laptop vs the XO Learning Tablet before buying one or the other. Just the short back of an envelope calculation in this blog post shows that the XO Learning tablet is a better option.
With that in mind I have to wonder why OLPC has not yet switched platforms. They are still working on a new laptop, the XO-4, which has many of the same disadvantages as the earlier models, but with a slightly faster CPU and a touchscreen. It's also more expensive.
I say switch to Android. It's still a set of compromises, but the switch also brings such a vast opportunity to accomplish so much more in a vastly larger playground.