Skeptics question OLPC's focus with $75 tablet

They pan OLPC for designing unrealistic hardware and losing its focus on education

Skeptics are criticizing the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child for losing its educational focus by designing unrealistic hardware at a price point that cannot be achieved.

OLPC and The Fuse Project on Tuesday unveiled the latest design for XO-3, a handheld tablet with a touchscreen for users to surf the Web and watch videos. It will be based on an Arm processor and include a software-based keyboard for users to type.

Designed for kids in developing countries, the tablet has a semi-flexible and durable screen that can turn it into an e-book reader. It includes multitouch support "so many hands can play and learn together on the same screen," according to a blog entry on the Web site of the Fuse Project, which has also designed past XO machines. The screen will be made of a single sheet of flexible plastic and be unbreakable.

The XO 3.0's price is "well below $100," according to statement from OLPC. The conceived tablet will be constructed with a "totally different approach" and become available in 2012, OLPC said.

But skeptics are calling the XO-3 laptop a dreamy device that may never see the light of the day. OLPC has been criticized in the past for announcing laptops at prices it can't achieve.

OLPC's founder Nicholas Negroponte said in 2005 the nonprofit would release the world's first US$100 laptop. However, the project was derailed by production problems and waning orders that delayed shipments and doubled the laptop's price. By that time, competitors like Asus jumped into OLPC's turf with low-cost laptops and netbooks. OLPC also scrapped the next-generation XO-2 laptop, which had a dual-screen design many considered ahead of its time.

Calling the XO-3 hardware "vaporware," a blogger on Insight TS said building the device was a lofty plan that looked good in pictures.

"We'd love to see all of these devices, but CG mockups and philanthropic promises aren't the same as real, shipping hardware," the blogger wrote.

The OLPC project has become an unrealistic hardware "dream" and lost its focus on education, wrote blogger Wayan Vota on OLPC News, which has followed the OLPC since its inception. The project comes up with unrealistic hardware designs and price points that destroy its purpose even more, he wrote.

"Excuse me if I get mad at the XO-3 hype. I'm angry at the energy devoted to fantasy XO hardware instead of OLPC educational reality. I miss the original OLPC Mission, where children, not computers, controlled our dreams," Vota wrote.

However, other bloggers defended OLPC, saying the company achieved its goal of building cheap, low-power machines like XO-1, which was a precursor to popular devices like netbooks.

In response to the criticism, Negroponte said via e-mail Wednesday that close to "1.4 million laptops in the hands of kids are doing our education mission superbly."

The nonprofit is focused on education and also on being a leader in hardware design and engineering, Negroponte said.

"Some people have told me how nice that is, but a shame we lost our creativity as thought leaders in hardware," Negroponte said.

But the change in XO-3's form factor is a step in the right direction as the XO-2 design of two-handed reading was not the future, Negroponte said. OLPC had to conceive a new design to keep in line with future trends in education.

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Agam Shah

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