OLPC: Shipping a Beta?

by jesse in , ,

Some of you might remember, coming out of the last PyCon I was (and have been) jazzed about the OLPC project's potential. Being exposed to technology changed my life, and taught me a new way to learn, expand and grow. I've seen it happen to many other people, in many other walks of life. While it is true that many of the countries the OLPC targets need "other" supplies than computers - it is also true that from a technologist standpoint - the OLPC project offers a way for those of us who have more technical skills to give back.

Donating money to large intangible organizations - or to the people you see parading the same pictures of starving children on TV is the simple route. Going to those countries and helping directly - while infinitely more concrete - is not reasonable in most cases. The OLPC stands out in the middle - something I, as a programmer can contribute my most important asset (my brain (I hope)) to and hope to make a difference.

Like all projects, the OLPC has had it's share of political issues - and I can't say I agree with everything that's come from the less technical arm of the project, but for the greater good, I'm willing to set that aside.

Unfortunately, I was not able to take advantage of the buy one-give one campaign they did last year, it just was not feasible given what was going on. I know, and encouraged many other people to do so however.

This weekend though - a post by someone I highly respect entitled "The OLPC nightmare" made me dig a little bit more. You can tell - by that post - that he's a little miffed at having bought what seems to be a Beta version of a laptop:

In fact just about the only thing you can do well with the laptop is drop it— which is good because I promise that after a couple of hours with it, you'll want to test its resilience to impact.

In that post, he also links to a review done by the Economist (also one of my favorite reads) entitled "One Clunky Laptop Per Child" they too make some of the same assertions Antonio does.

Yes - I do not have one of these laptops - I am stuck only playing with the system via virtual images on a sickly powerful MacBook Pro, but I do remember playing with the prototype at PyCon last year, and based off of these articles and others, it feels like what got shipped was not terribly far from the prototype I played with early last year. That's unfortunate for many reasons - not the least of which is something the Economist wisely points out:

Ultimately the OLPC initiative will be remembered less for what it produced than the products it spawned. The initiative is like running the four-minute mile: no one could do it, until someone actually did it. Then many people did.

The OLPC has spawned a lot of knock-offs, competitors, etc. None of those have goals as lofty and "pure" as those of the OLPC, but the landscape has changed. Shipping a Beta labeled as "GA" never works out well (as commercial software vendors know, but many open source projects never learn).

I'll be interested to see the opinions of others, especially those I know who bought the laptop excited at the prospects and that have no moral or political collateral invested in the project except as technologists.