Friday, December 21, 2007

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC): First Impression Review

one laptop per childWhen I first heard about the $100 laptop project I was really excited at the concept. I thought "This will empower all individuals in a society to have access to information and to participate in the global economy." Denizens of poor nations may not have factories in their countries, or natural resources, but each individual has a mind. Whether that person be in Nebraska or Nigeria, they both have the potential to be the next Warren Buffett. It's about the opportunities and barriers presented to them. Giving children a laptop, when they barely have enough food, clothing and shelter seems foolish and rings or a warped South Park cartoon.

In reality, though, these children have the same intellectual potential as any child in the US. Empowering this generation with knowledge is the single greatest tools to stop the cycle of problems. Yes, we all know that it's better to teach someone to fish rather than give them fish. The OLPC project goes beyond that and not only teaches them how to fish, but how to design the fishing pole and raise the fish to maximize yield and minimize impact on the environment.

When I found out *I* could buy one of these laptops and be a part of the project, I raced to participate. I was up at 5am to make sure I could keep refreshing my browser to get the first one. I believed I was part of something that could have as much impact on society as the Gutenberg press. Sure, I'm an idealist, but so is Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

When my OLPC laptop arrived I opened it so fast I sliced my finger open. Honestly and truly. I was disappointed there was no documentation (and no T-Mobile free access information). A letter said to go to the web for more information. Of course, the website was down...or rather just extremely overloaded as the page kept timing out.

The first problem I had was how to open it. It wasn't intuitive. There was no handle or clasp indicating how to open the device. In my struggles I did get to examine the seams on the plastic. They were sturdy, and none "gave" indicating where I could open it. I decided to flip the rabbit ears and then it opened. No big deal, but couldn't they have put a symbol indicating how to open it? Just a simple arrow?

I then gave it a name and choose my colors. Limited choice, but that's ok. Why couldn't they integrate some fun kid functions like on the Wii and let you design the colors you wanted instead of picking from preselected designs? Next I was faced with a bunch of circles with my avatar in the middle. It reminded me heavily of Bezerk or Robotron 2084. I eventually realized this was a list of networks. I found my SSID and clicked to connect and put in my WPA password. Didn't work. I then used my main computer to go the OLPC web site and found out that WPA isn't fully yet implemented. Arrrgh. So I reset my router to WEP and got on. I still don't know what the "mesh networks" listed are or what the colors mean, if anything.

When these are given to children who have never used a computer before, the system should be very easy to figure out. Granted, I grew up with computers all my life, so I don't know what it's like to see your first computer. Like a child, I started pressing buttons and found out what things did. I found the browser and surfing was actually quite good. However it was horribly slow and my cell phone is significantly faster. Nonetheless my Gmail loaded, as did Google documents and spreadsheets meaning that I had access to a MS compatible word processor and spreadsheet.

Typing on the laptop was a challenge. I realize these are designed for kids' hands, but I think any child who would have the manually dexterity to type properly would probably find the keys too small. It wasn't any worse than the portable bluetooth keyboard I have for my cell phone. In addition, the keys were spaced well part and I rarely found myself double typing like I do on other devices.

I then went to Youtube...videos didn't play because in the effort to be 100% open source, they don't have an Adobe Flash player but an open source equivalent.

I then tried the "eBook" type function by moving the screen and hiding the keyboard and touchpad. The screen has navigational controls on the side and even let's you change the orientation of the screen in 90 degree angles. I was able to page up and down on the page and move it left to right. Only problem is I had no way of clicking on the page. Arrrgh. That isn't very useful. What's the point of the eBook if you can't go to the next page. I'm a reasonably smart guy, but I couldn't figure out the bookmark function or if you can have tabbed browsing.

I gave up and went to the RSS newsreader. No dice. Couldn't get any of my feeds to work. Even the included feeds didn't work. Well, that's a bust. Speaking of bust, by this time, I had been using it two hours and the fully charged battery died. This was supposed to energy efficient for long treks in the desert?

There are a host of other programs included and I tried them all. Most are examples like a video recorder, calculator and a "turtle" that is a modern implementation of LOGO. I approached them like a child would: press buttons and see what happens. Nothing did. Kids museums are based on the fact that children like to touch things and see an effect. I'd press a button, a program would load, but then nothing would move. Arrrgh. That's as bad as telling a youngster "Look...but don't touch"

To an extent, I can understand that this is a proof of concept device. The hardware works and I was even able to hook up a external mouse. Alas, it did not have the SD card reader promised, but that's ok. The keyboard, while small, was well sealed. I'm not going to test it under the elements...but I wouldn't be afraid of using it in harsh conditions. I wouldn't leave my laptop in the car all day, but I'd feel comfortable with this. I wouldn't worry about a case for it. I think it could take some abuse.

The failure of the software functions to work right is annoying, but not insurmountable. I've used beta software before and this unit is clearly a beta. The beauty of open source is that these problems will be fixed by the user community. Instead of relying on a group of programmers in a corporate office, this device will rely on the world's brain trust to make it better. Why are there like a zillion plug-ins for firefox....same concept!

My greatest concern is the interface. It just doesn't make sense. They call it "Sugar" but it's pretty sour to me. Again, I've never lived without computers and I can't guess how a child in Africa might view how a computer works. In reality though, they won't be drop shipping these laptops. People in the US will be trained to train people in Africa to train people in the villages. are those teachers going to figure out this unit? It has to be based on concepts that teachers would recognize. If I'm a tech and I can't quickly figure this stuff out, how is a third grade teacher going to teach a teacher in Africa these concepts?

I'm disappointed, but hopeful. This is so much more than a laptop, it's a tool for change. The founding principle is “It's an education project, not a laptop project." The laptop is actually pretty good, but the project is failing. I simply can't see this interface being usable without a significant overhaul. In addition , the failure to have proper documentation is a significant hindrance to adoption by decision makers. How is a world leader going to be able to figure out how to use it? I wouldn't buy these for my school even if it were $25. The laptops just don't make sense. Without the education project behind it, these will be used to send out some more phishing attempts of 419 scams.

I'm sure the idea was to get this laptop in as many hands of influential people as possible. They'll then provide the buzz to keep the project alive and get open source programmers on the bandwagon. OLPC is facing stiff competition from Intel and Asus: both are coming out with $200 laptops that could run more familiar operating systems like windowed linux, or even a scaled back version of Windows. While OLPC is a non-profit, these other companies are for profit and can take a loss in order to push OLPC out of the market. OLPC was smart to get these laptops in the hands of as many people as possible in order to create and "installed base" to protect themselves from being crushed by Asus and Intel. OLPC is already successful in it's mission because whether it's a OLPC or a Asus eee PC in the hands of these children, they *will* be getting laptops. If OLPC however fades away, then Asus and Intel can quickly raise prices going back to their old practices of focusing on profit instead of social change.

Will the OLPC be recorded as the next major technology in the advanced of civilization? Will the OLPC be the equivalent of a Gutenberg bible or the Magna Carta? That depends on the open source community. As it stands right now, the OLPC is less powerful and harder to figure out than your average $49-after-rebate cell phone. If it stays in that stage, it will be a crying shame. However, I'm an idealist, and the more people talking about OLPC, the more people showing up at coffee shops with it and airports with it, the more likely programmers will get on board and make the laptop even better. When I saw these laptops were going for $400 on ebay, I seriously thought about selling mine. But $400 is too cheap to sell your dream of making the world a better place: one laptop at a time.

BOTTOM LINE: A great concept worthy of continuing, but don't be fooled for a second that this is ready for implementation. Buy it to share in the dream, not for a useful computing device


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Laptop Bag Review: Papa's got a brand new bag

Papa's got a brand new bag!
laptop bag reivew

If industry expert predictions hold true, laptops will outpace desktop sales again this holiday season. Unfortunately people pay thousands of dollars for a laptop , yet protect it with something that is stylish, but offers little more protection than a ziplock bag. If you give or get a laptop this holiday season, please protect it. Screen cracking can be eliminated in our lifetime, but only if we work together!

You really can't blame some people for not protecting their laptop properly. Most bags are ugly. Butt-ugly. Black behemoths that scream "I have a laptop and you should steal me". College students opt for the stylish laptop sleeves, because, well they want dates and don't want to look stupid. Function over form comes later in life. Older people buy Volvos, younger people buy Minis or Hummers. Don't buy your college student a laptop bag unless you are sure they will use it. Those ubiquitous black bags simply won't fill the bill.

I, who couldn't get dates in college, did have one of those black bags until this year . Now that I'm staring down at my 20th college reunion on the calendar I feel obligated to grow up from my sturdy yet functional black bag that my original Powerbook 180c was carried in. I was reluctant to say goodbye, but yet my stylish Macbook wouldn't fit snug in the bag at all. That's the only thing from college that fits "too loose." Also, people coming up to me in coffee shops saying "I remember when I had a bag like that" certainly didn't help.

So I was on a quest for a new bag. I didn't want to sacrifice protecting my laptop just so I didn't want to look like a dork either. Can something be stylish and functional, yet provide quality protection ? Oh, I should add that it shouldn't be too stylish. I don't want a bag that screams "Pretty in Pink" Onward to my journey....

I contacted a variety of vendors for samples of their cases that would fit this my demands. Some didn't respond and were rather smug about having their cases compared--partially I think because they know their popular messenger bag style cases simply don't provide protection. An ideal case should be padded on all sides, so the computer is protected from every angle. Many simply provide some padding on the sides, but none on the edges, which is a more likely impact zone.

First up was the Targus radius Convertible Messenger/Backpack, a well-known industry name. They provided me a "hybrid" case that was supposed to be a backpack and a messenger bag style at the same time. In reality, it was simply a backpack with a shoulder strap. Not the end of the world, but backpacks remind me of my days in A/V club and not hanging out with the cool kids. The case had some nice nooks and crannies specifically designed for Mac laptops: square holder for power adapter, space for your iPod, etc. It had some kind of conduit to hold your iPod headphone cord while listening, but I couldn't figure it out. That was a common trend I found: features I didn't quite get. I'm not sure I want tech support for my laptop bag. Ironically, when I asked press people about some of these features, they couldn't always answer my questions. Only the designers I think truly understand what they designed

Though there Targus bag had nice storage room and met the protection criteria, it wasn't stylish. Even without my nerd day hangups, the backpack wasn't very good looking. It reminded me of one of those square Pan-Am travel bags grandma used to have. I had this sudden urge to offer people breath mints while using it...or at least save teabags for future dunks (Grandma: "You can reuse a teabag at least 3 times, stop wasting money young man"). However, I've seen those type of bags at Urban Outfitters, so maybe it actually attempted to be retro. Nonetheless, the shoulder strap didn't adequately distribute the weight and I felt very uncomfortable walking with it. It was great on the bike though. After forcing myself to use it for the review, I quickly put it on the shelf and abandoned it. It's a backpack with a messenger bag strap, nothing more. Sorry Targus, no offense, but I don't think you'll be seeing too many marketing or fashion majors using your bag. Maybe you can do some cross-promotion on Warcraft, or hit the other end with It was an upgrade, but not by much. The only reason I'd upgrade from my black bag to this is because my Macbook fits perfect. However, I had to remove my Neocase sleeve to use it.

Second to respond is It's marketing is hip and trendy with distinctive Aussie roots. They want to be as popular as Men At Work was in the 80's. Their Macworld booth reflected their eagerness to make it on the scene, and their website is about as easy to understand as the lyrics of "Down Under" (Imagine looking up vegimite in pre-internet days!) . Huge display with funky giveaways like tiny matchbooks. Does all that flash translate into a good laptop bag? Somewhat. Crumpler bags came in a variety of styles and colors. I was sent a "Hee-Goer". Name is promising because many bags feel too much like a purse. Unfortunately, I ran into technical difficulties with this one as well. No info on the website about what all the straps do including it's "third leg" (their words, not mine). I made an importu visit to their store in New York (next to my new favorite veggie restaurant S'Nice) and they had a handout because I wasn't the only one confused by the third leg. Sorry, third leg sometimes can have some rather inappropriate connotations.
Crumpler review

Crumpler adequately held all my items, though I didn't like the fact my Macbook was being held in place by a velcro strap instead of a zipper or a clasp. The outside of the case used both velcro and clasps. That was frustrating because the velcro would have to be readjusted constantly to properly place the clasps. While Crumpler clearly was tops on style, including a fun store and funky website, I didn't find it had enough room to hold my myriad of connectors and adapters. Crumpler gets bonus points on style (how can you go wrong with the name He-Goer), it was average on function and protection. The Macbook's spine stuck out a bit, and while it would have been well protected against a standard drop, given the bag's balance, I found it easily fell on the spine with my test laptop.

Next on the list was BBP (bum bak pack) . I was intrigued after MacWorld seeing their Hampton "hybrid bag". This bag looks like a standard messenger bag, but you can convert the single shoulder strap into a dual backpack module. You click a snap in the middle of the strap and then adjust the backpack straps as such. Yes it is 3 steps, and at first I was confused. Fortunately, they had a video on their website and I quickly got an idea. It even has a top handle, so I'd actually call it a tribrid: backpack, messenger bag, and briefcase. I liked that briefcase handle, because it made it very easy to pull it up when it was on the floor. Other bags, you had to grasp the straps. Did BBP secretly steal someone from Apple or SFMOMA to design this bag?

Out of open disclosure, I got sent this bag first, so I may be slightly biased. When I'd try the other bags, I kept slipping back into my BBP bag. First, I really dug the hybrid concept. With gas prices they way they are, I'm biking more and I didn't feel comfortable with a messenger bag that moves around while you ride, or could even slip off. Though to be fair the "third leg" on the Crumpler was helpful in that. However the feature I liked the most was the padding. Why didn't someone think of this sooner? The shoulder strap is padded which is not uncommon. What is padded is the bag wall of the messenger bag itself. When used as a backpack, it releases the pressure on your back, but when you use it as a messenger bag, it's uniqueness really shines through. They say they "protect your bum" and they sure do. I'd walk around with this bag, and I kid you not, I was worried at times that I left my laptop somewhere, the padding eased the pressure enough, I thought there was something wrong. My hip often times would get sore walking with a laptop bag. Instead of being butt-ugly, this bag is butt-friendly.

Other great bonus features was a variety of nooks and crannies to hold my accessories. I counted a total of sixteen compartments. Though none were specifically designed for Mac products , I was able to find a home for almost everything I carry with me. In particular, there was a separate "hidden" holder for the laptop bag that had a water resistant zip enclosure. Someone could open up your messenger bag and rummage around and never find your laptop. The compartment that had the laptop was closest to your body, making it near impossible for a passerby to pilfer your bag. I was impressed that STM bags (another Aussie company)had that feature, but alas, they didn't provide me a review unit. I've been traveling a reasonable amount lately and more than once said "test over" and switched from one of the other bags to my BBP was just so darn handy with travel. Of the three I tested, it fit best underneath an airplane seat.

My only complaint with BBP was the color. I was sent the chocolate brown and orange bag. It reminded me of a Reeses Pieces. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I didn't feel very professional. However the better half said it was "zune" brown. Yuck. I think beggers can't be choosers as they say. I'd recommend "he-man" try the urban camouflage style. With the style and color, it's not just a hybrid backpack messenger bag, but a hybrid bag that will gain appeal with both men and women.

So what's papa's brand new bag.? If you haven't figured it out yet it's the BBP bag. Not only is it comfortable on your "bum" but its ample storage and hybrid convertibility makes it the bag for me. I love the bag. I trekked all over New York and Seattle with it and felt very comfortable. In fact, I brought one of the other review bags with me on a trip, and I decided I needed something that worked and quickly transfered to my BBP. BBP has a zen like balance of style, function, and protection that will make it the only bag I trust my laptop in and bumping my bum.

Article was republished by the Lawrence Apple User's Group 2.0 here as well as other groups listed on the right

Review: The Missing Sync for Palm OS 6.0.1

Missing Sync for Palm OS review

Palm’s treatment of the Mac reminds me of that girl in high school who suddenly showed interest in me the time choosing lab partners came around...and then dumped me at the end of science class. Palm’s market share grew because of loyal Mac users. We were dedicated to the Palm and shunned it’s pale imitation: Windows CE and then Windows Mobile. However, Palm later joined the dark side, began making Windows Mobile devices and left us in the dust. Development of Palm software for the Mac stalled out and Palm left it to Apple to pick up the slack. Just like I was left stood up the week after science class was over. Whatever.

Fortunately, iSync works OK to do basic syncing of Palms with the Mac, so Palm can choose it’s own lab partner---the Mac is fine on its own. It fact, we created a better Palm: the iPhone. Of course that girl in grade school we dated..the Newton. I hope she doesn’t show up at the 20 year class reunion. She never did understand what I said anyways, so she’ll probably get the date wrong. iSync gets the job done, but some of us want more.

While iSync will move contacts and dates, MissingSync does so much more. iSync is your best friend's sister that will be your date to the prom so you don’t go alone, while MissingSync is the supermodel of Palm synchronization. While it does move contacts and dates, it retains more of that information from address book and iCal such as work addresses and calendar groups. Not only that, but for Treo users it will backup your call log and SMS messages, and then synchronize the information with your address book. In my line of work, it's great because I can easily determine every call and message to a particular client. The killer feature for me is it's ability to synchronize with Yojimbo by Barebones.

Just like that supermodel, MissingSync is high maintenance, flaky and unreliable. Maybe I was stood up because my lab partner was using Missing Sync and didn't realize the date? MissingSync randomly won't sync some of my contacts and randomly changes the notes synchronization. I was given excuse after excuse by tech support. Eventually I bought a new Mac and got a new phone--and it still didn't work reliably. Best (or worst) of all, if you want to speak to a human it will cost you $60. Oh, it gets better. That $60 gives you the right to a "call-back"--you specify a time window and they call you. Funny, that supermodel also required me to buy her something before she would give me the time of day. I'm sorry, but spending for $60 for support of a $40 program just seems wrong. If the program were reliable, that would be one thing, but it isn't!

In general, MissingSync's ability to synchronize so much more data than iSync or Palm's hotsync manager make it a compromise that still leaves you ahead in the end--even when you combine the support costs. Yeah, all being said and done, it's better dating a supermodel than your best friends's sister, but not by as much as you think. Markspace will need to improve the quality of its product and tech support policies to persuade casual Palm users to use their product rather than iSync.

Pros: Transfers much more data to your Palm than iSync or Palm's software
Cons: Flaky, temperamental, and poor tech support policies.

Two out of Five DogCows

Article was republished by the Lawrence Apple User's Group 2.0 here as well as other groups listed on the right