The Portable Stack – Is there a place for the EeePC?

Recently I was successfully marketed to by and aquired an Asus EeePC 900 Linux netbook. For those who are not familiar with these puppies, they’re hyper-small fully functional ‘laptop’ computers, scaled down to be the size of a hardcover book. The Netbook article on Wikipedia is a good summary of these devices.

The Asus EeePC 900 is an ‘older’ version (hence the reason I got it for only $149) with 512meg of RAM and a 4 gig SSD drive. It has all the basic features you’d expect for a laptop – wifi, decent screen, touchpad, USB ports, good battery life (about 3.5 hours), etc. In all respects, it should be a geeks dream. A fully functional Linux box that is only a few pounds, and can run for hours.

So why am I considering handing it off to my son?

The main problem is that in the current portable computing environment, the ‘slot’ that Netbooks like the EeePC can fill is narrowing rapidly. On the ‘full laptop’ side, there’s a trend toward longer battery life, lighter designs, and stuffing all the functionality of a full desktop machine into a portable form. Many people don’t even have desktop machines anymore, they use their laptops for all work (that’s my situation). On the other side we have the emergency of smartphones like the iPhone (which I have). The iPhone is an enormously capable device. I can read my email, chat online, browse the web, play games – all the things I’d likely do on my laptop if it were small and light – the space that the EeePC and others are shooting for.

Even in the face of all this, I really did give the EeePC a try. I carried it around for a week, trying to see where I’d use it and where I wouldn’t. I never ‘clicked’ into it in any particular fashion, due to a number of obstacles that were either filled by my iPhone or by my laptop:

  • Very small keyboard
    The EeePC has a very small and somewhat wobbly keyboard. I have quite large hands, and though I could ‘shrink’ my hands down to type away, it took some serious concentration, and really only worked when the EeePC was flat on a desk and I was sitting in a proper chair. If I were in that situation, I’d just use my laptop.

  • Wireless twitchy
    This is probably a fault of the Linux distribution the EeePC uses, but I had all sorts of problems with the machine waking up and not reassociating with any available wifi (it wouldn’t even show networks available).

  • No LEAP support
    The wireless also could not use LEAP authentication on wireless. This meant I could not use the EeePC anywhere at the office. Total loss there – I was hoping to be able to bring the machine with me to meetings so I didn’t have to undock and haul my normal laptop along.

  • Update failures from Asus
    ASUS has broken their updater. The EeePC will not software update properly from ASUS’s servers. This is a real problem. There are workarounds, naturally, but it likely means there won’t be OS updates from the manufacturer anytime soon. The answer seems to be to use Eeebuntu, a version of Ubuntu linux designed specifically for the EeePC netbooks.

  • Touchpad
    I don’t like the touchpad. I don’t know why – I just can’t get comfortable with it. The two-finger scrolling is cumbersome and prone to ‘pausing’ (this compared to the two-fingered scrolling on a macbook, which is smooth as silk).

  • Yet Another Power Supply
    I have a problem with power supplies. If I’m going to carry another laptop, I have to have another power supply with me. So now I have 2 laptops, 2 power supplies. This is not saving me anything in weight in my backpack.

Given all these issues, I find myself either picking up my iPhone to twitter or check something on wikipedia, or get out my laptop if I’m going to do any real work.

So what to do? The current plan is to reload the EeePC with Eeebuntu and evaluate that. If it’s stable, is able to browse youtube, run Python’s IDLE environment, and play nethack, then it will be a perfect upgrade for my son, as he’s outgrowing his XO laptop.

OLPC – Why we’re doing it.

For anyone who has asked “Is it working?” or “So these things are for kids in developing countries. What happens when they get there?”, there is a fantastic article up on OLPC News called OLE Nepal Notes from an OLPC Deployment. It details a six month old deployment of 135 XO laptops to children in Nepal.

Some choice bits:

0 laptops stolen, lost, or otherwise missing. One laptop has been seriously damaged when the child who owned it cleaned it carefully with soap and water. Otherwise no laptops have been seriously damaged as a result of use.

We conducted four days of teacher training off-site and five days on-site in the classroom with both the students and teachers. A large portion of our teachers had never used a computer before but they learned very quickly. Their enthusiasm was amazing. Training during the off-site sessions formally ended at 5:30 pm but the teachers stayed in our training room each night until 11 pm, pounding away on the XO’s and asking endless questions.

I am continuing to contribute to the program whenever possible by helping out with the support queues and other discussions on the mailing lists. But there is also a need for software to be written. Most of the XO runs on Python, a language I very much want to learn, and seeing this list of ‘most requested applications’ just tickles that interest further:

  • Easier way to play music and video
  • A better E-Book reader
  • A lot more activities for learning English
  • All the Nepali textbooks in digital format
  • A comprehensive digital library with lots of Nepali-language reading materials
  • A Typing Tutor program for learning English and Nepali
  • Interactive learning activities that match the Nepali curriculum
  • A car racing game (the kids)

This naturally during my copious spare time… But what a noble cause.

OLPC G1G1 Program via Amazon is now up

For those who missed the first Give One Get One program, the OLPC group has made them available again, this time in a partnership with This means laptops will be shipped and managed by Amazon, thereby avoiding all the shipping and support delays that cropped up with the first program last year

Zach has had his XO since January, and still uses it regularly, particularly for Scratch programming, and also playing on a mud. He’s going to be graduating to programming in Python soon, and this is an excellent platform this.

By the way, there’s a Fedora distribution from Redhat that sold through Amazon on an SD card. Buy the card, drop it into the XO, and it’ll boot up as a fully functional Redhat Linux box with your favorite desktop manager and other application support.

Remember, the G1G1 program is designed primarily to support the developing countries, and get more laptops into the hands of kids that need them. These laptops are by far the greenest laptops ever manufactured, with the lowest impact on the environment possible. If you’re serious about education, environmental support, and getting technology into the hands of people who want it the most, please consider the OLPC project.

Giving Back – Working for OLPC

It’s no secret I’ve been a huge fan of the One Laptop per Child project. After all, I contributed to the Give One Get One project, and obtained a unit for my son Zach, which meant a child elsewhere in the world received a laptop as well.
Following this success, and watching Zach teach himself Python and learn basic programming skills using Scratch, I found myself wanting to do more to support OLPC. I don’t have bottomless resources to throw at the project, but I still wanted to contribute somehow.
After getting to know some of the project folks, and after some back and forth, I was admitted to the OLPC Support crew, and now am an official OLPC Support Volunteer.
What this means is when I have some spare time, I log into the support system and answer questions from folks all over the world about OLPC, the laptops, and the applications. I’m a volunteer, so I’m not paid, but I feel that I’m giving something to the community. I can answer questions and communicate clearly, there are people who need help. For the most part, these are people who, like me, feel the OLPC project is important, and are willing to contribute to it, and get a unit of their own to boot. I’m proud to help them out as much as I can.
In 4 days, I’ve handled about 38 problems. That’s 38 people who are a little better off with their machines than they were before.
This is one of the few true volunteer organizations I’ve ever committed myself to. I’ve always given financially to causes I believe in, but when it comes to manning booths or spending weekends “lending a hand”, it’s usually been isolated to things like SF and gaming conventions.
This is bigger. This is important. This means something.
And I’m helping it be successful.
It feels good.

Why the XO Laptop is better than the Classmate

There’s been some awful FUD flying around the OLPC world in the last few days, with misquotes, misinformation, and flat out lies being propagated left and right. Even Engadget, one of the better geektech blogs out there, got it completely wrong regarding OLPC CTO Mary Lou Jepsen’s departure from the project.

Fortunately, there’s good resources around that tell the story from the people who really do know what is going on. First, there’s the interview with Mary Lou Jepsen on Groklaw. In it she explains the real reasons behind her choice to move on to Pixel Qi, and her ongoing relationship with OLPC. Astute readers will note that her commentary there bears little or no resemblance to some of the FUD flying around other news sites.

Of particular interest is this tasty quote. There’s been lots of noise about OLPC squashing competition (in particular, the Classmate PC), and making unreasonable demands from Intel. That’s complete hooey. Competition should be between competitive products. So how does the Classmate stack up against the XO?

Classmate is more expensive, consumes 10 times the power, has 1/3 the wifi range, and can’t be used outside. Also, the Classmate doesn’t use neighboring laptops to extend the reach of the internet via hopping (mesh-networking) like the XO does. So not only is the XO cheaper than the Classmate, the XO requires less infrastructre expenditure for electricity and for internet access. In Peru we can run off of solar during the day and handcrank at night for an additional $25 or so per student – this is one-time expense – the solar panel and the crank will last 10 or perhaps 20 years. Just try running electricity cables up and down the Peruvian Andes for that cost while making sure it’s environmentally clean energy. The Classmate isn’t as durable as the XO, and its screen is about 30% smaller, the batteries are the type that can explode and only last 1-2 years and can’t be removed by the user and harm the environment. The batteries are expensive to replace: $30-40 per replacement. The XO batteries last for 5 years and cost less than $10 to replace. Finally, the XO is the greenest laptop ever made, the Classmate isn’t – this matters a great deal when one proposes to put millions of them in the developing world.

Given that comparison, why would any country, any organization, pursue the Classmate over the XO? Answer? Underhanded dealings, lies, and unfair practices. That is not to say that aggressive competition doesn’t happen in the marketplace at large, but OLPC is not trying to compete in a marketplace. It has a mission to do some good in the world. It’s purpose is not to broker back room deals to increase stockholder value. It’s goals are far more noble, something that carries far too little weight in the world today.

Back on the clarification train, we have the inimitable Ivan of OLPC giving the full details behind the whole ‘Microsoft Dual-Boot XO Laptop” spiel. Unsurprisingly, it’s nothing like what the blogs and the news sites are characterizing it as. I’m rather disappointed that the tech community seems to be aggressively looking for a reason to bash the OLPC project – looking for schisms, problems, and interpreting every change or update in the project as a sign of it’s imminent demise. While it’s certainly common to see this all the time in mainstream media, I had, perhaps naively, hoped the geek world would take a broader, less sensationalistic approach to reporting on this project. Sad to say, that’s doesn’t seem to be the case.

Doesn’t matter. The project is a success, and continues to be so. And I for one am glad.

Well, Dang.

We just got mail saying that the XO Laptop for Zach won’t arrive until at least January 15th. On the one hand, I’m glad they let us know so I can stop frantically hitting <refresh> on Fedex’s website, but I’m sad because he won’t have it for his vacation.
I am consolidated knowing that our contribution is still helping the OLPC project, and somewhere in central or southern America, a child -will- get a laptop because of our contribution, but I still wish Zach had his for the winter break.
He’s happily spending time working with Scratch on his desktop machine anyway, so at least when the XO does get here, there’ll be an environment he’s already familiar with on it.

Know a foreign language? OLPC needs you!

According to OLPC News, the OLPC project is enlisting help translating software for the XO laptop into other languages using Pootle :

How it works is that you go to the localization server for the One Laptop per Child Project. Register by creating a username and password and providing your name and email address. Choose the languages you wish to contribute to, and then the specific file of the project, like “XO Core” or “Terminology.”
Pick a word from the list on the left and write a suggestion in the box on the right. Clicking “Suggest” sends the translation to the server. If your Amharic is rusty, and you’re not quite sure about your suggestion, check the box beside the word “Fuzzy” to let the program know that too.

I’m a dumb ‘murrican, so I’m no help here, but maybe others can chime in?

XO Laptop environment – Try it yourself!

I can’t help it, I’m too impatient. While waiting for my Zach’s XO laptop to arrive, I wanted to get a feel for what the environment was going to be like.
The XO uses a modified version of Redhat’s Fedora operating system, with a custom written ‘desktop’ called Sugar. Coupled with Sugar are several tools, including a music editor, video application, several programming tools, a web browser, etc etc. The environment had to be built in a way that non-english-speaking children could pick it up easily, and if the early reports are true, the team has done a great job at this.
But I wanted a chance to work with the environment before the laptop arrived. Fortunately, there’s a great series of pages on the OLPC Laptop wiki that describes how to set up an emulator, and run the laptop OS on your desktop machine.
After a little fiddling, I got it up and running, and was able to play around with the environment for a while.
First note – the emulator runs things -slower- than the laptop itself does, so I had to take into account I was seeing things at about half the speed a typical user would. But even with that, I was able to get a good feel for what the user experience was like.
I recommend anyone interested in this system to follow the emulator steps and take a look at it. I’m of the opinion that with several million of these going out to kids all over the world, the environment and tools are going have a major impact on the net at large. Opensource code (all written in Python, very good visual programming tools (like the Logo environment pictured here) – all will contribute to a new digital landscape over the next few years.