At the flashy Las Vegas gathering this week, the Consumer Electronics Show, there will likely be a lot of tablets unveiled, but none are as eagerly anticipated as the OLPC XO 3.0, a tablet version of the famously inexpensive and rugged laptop from One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte.
The tablet release comes after bruising criticism of the highly anticipated laptop several years ago, which some in the industry called a failure. One of the main criticisms was the laptop's lack of mobility: "Cell phones are far more popular as the means to connect to the net in much of the Third World and cell-phone type devices rather than cute little laptops might have made much more sense," writes BusinessWeek's Bruce Nussbaum.
The new tablet, designed to be an educational device for students in the developing world, where electricity and broadband access is scarce, addresses this to some extent. It uses very little power: the battery lasts eight to 10 hours and can be recharged with either a hand-crank or with a solar panel that doubles as the tablet’s cover. The XO 3.0 actually comes with two covers, one of which contains a four-watt solar panel that can be placed in the sun to recharge, then reconnected in order to power the tablet.
There’s great interest and excitement in the development of low-cost tablets, for lots of reasons. A few months ago, the $35 Aakash tablet was released, and according to The New York Times, Datawind -- the manufacturer behind the Aakash tablet -- has received some 1.4 million orders. But because the company was unprepared to meet the demand, it has stopped taking orders, and might be struggling to meet the orders that were already made. Even more troubling, many of the early reviews of the Aakash tablet have been incredibly poor: the battery life is just an hour or two, the software is sluggish, the touchscreen "sticky."
While the inability to build a quality $35 tablet isn't that surprising, it's important to remember that even the popular $199 Android tablet Amazon Kindle Fire has had its share of negative reviews. So when it comes to the XO 3.0, "If they can really pull off the $100 price point, it will be the most well-built tablet under $200," points out The Verge's Johanna Stern, who's had a hands-on look at the tablet.
But the OLPC project has had its own fair share of struggles -- the inability to meet production deadlines, performance problems with the laptops, as well as concerns that the devices would not be able to meet that promised $100 price point. Nevertheless, the organization insists that the XO 3.0 tablet will ship this year, according to the OLPC organization, with some 75,000 devices headed to Uruguay and Nicaragua for a 2-year study planned to examine the impact of the tablets and new adaptive learning software on the literacy and reading habits of three-to-eight-year-olds in India, Tanzania and Sierra Leone.
"In the reading experiment, where we ask can a child learn to read on his or her own, we imagine many hours of use per day, as many as six or eight,” said Negroponte in a recent PC World article. “Frankly, the reading experiment may be the most important thing I have ever done....if it works."
Though it’s thicker than most tablets on the market, it doesn't skimp on its other hardware specifications: it has a 1 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, and 4 GM of storage. The XO 3.0 also contains a USB port, a Micro USB port, headphone and microphone jacks, and a power jack (the latter can be used for a regular AC adapter as well as for the hand-crank). The tablet has two 8-inch display options: an LCD version and a PixelQi version. The latter is meant to make the tablet readable outside. But, according to Stern, although "the touchscreen was responsive, the slow software clearly holds it back."
The XO 3.0 has two software options: Android or a Linux operating system. Stern believes that the slowness of the device "has more to do with the actual software not being ready. The delay between tapping the browser icon and it opening was noticeable. The second problem is that the software doesn't seem to be optimized for touch. When I tried to scroll in the Wikipedia program, it highlighted text; I had to select the scroll bar to get to the bottom of the page. OLPC says it is working on this and that it does work in some applications. Speaking of applications, many of the apps for this tablet are built by countries that buy the tablets or laptops, so while there are native browser, camera, word processing programs, the others have to come from the open source community."
That last sentence is important, particularly if the XO 3.0 tablets -- as is the case with the other, existing OLPC laptops -- are only sold directly to governments. At this time, the organization has not indicated that it will change its distribution model to make the devices available to the general public.
The OLPC projects have raised hope that technology can help bring quality education to underserved populations. It’s hard to tell yet if the new XO 3.0 tablet will be the ideal low-cost, high-durability educational device that the organization has worked to produce.
But if cellphone penetration in the developing world has reached almost 80%, are tablets the right devices? Or when we think of putting one computing device into the hands of every child, should we be thinking about a mobile phone instead?