XO-2: A Second-Generation OLPC Laptop/Reader

A Second-Generation OLPC Laptop

One Laptop per Child (OLPC) designer Yves Behar highlights some of the interesting concepts behind the second-generation XO machine envisioned for the 2010 timeframe on the TEDBlog.

Despite OLPC’s oft-discussed organizational problems and the usability issues of the current incarnation of the XO, the hardware designs of the current and future machines exhibit undeniably fresh thinking. The future unit’s software-configurable dual screen/touch input opens up a range of possibilities, from a proper display of two-page book spreads to task-specific input buttons configured for specific age groups and languages. Even collaboration and play by two simultaneous users becomes possible.

I’ll post a link to the full TED talk by Behar when it becomes available. Meanwhile, see more photos and additional details on TEDBlog.

Update: Here’s an excerpt from Nicholas Negroponte’s preview of the XO-2 at the OLPC Global Country Workshop:

OLPC XO and the Magic Sunshine Screen

Much has been written about the OLPC XO’s remarkable display, given its specifications:

higher resolution than 95% of the laptop displays on the market today [i.e., 200dpi color, which is theoretically higher than that on the iPhone — gm]; approximately 1/7th the power consumption; 1/3rd the price; sunlight readability; and room-light readability with the backlight off

Whatever other difficulties the OLPC organization may be suffering, the display is seemingly a singular achievement that could result in better handhelds, ebook readers and laptops at significantly lower cost.

But how good is the display, really?

In my earlier first look at the XO, I was quite surprised by the display’s high quality, given the low cost of the machine. With the backlight turned on and the screen displaying full color, I found it to be fairly crisp and bright, far better than the murky displays I’ve seen on some low-end laptops.

Displays Side by Side
The XO (in Tablet Mode, Portrait Orientation) and a MacBook Pro Display a PDF Ebook

In bright daylight where ordinary laptop screens are often barely usable, if at all, the XO performed brilliantly. I loaded a pdf of my current read, Pisstown Chaos, to test the XO display’s mettle with the backlight turned off in reflective monochrome mode. A MacBook Pro in the same environment had me running for shade, since the display was barely legible. The XO text display, on the other hand, was highly readable with good contrast. It was completely suitable for reading in bright daylight (see photo at the top of this post). While the satiny surface of the screen could cause some glare issues (below), slight shifts in position were enough to alleviate the problem.

All in all, the XO display quality and daylight performance were delivered as promised. Since the technology behind the display is slated for commercialization beyond OLPC, we can perhaps look forward to a new generation of capable and lower-cost machines with the XO in their lineage.

The XO’s display in bright sun — some glare, but very usable.

The Hypothetical iTablet: What’s Taking So Long?

iPhone and iTablet

The iPhone and a 5.25″ iTablet, to scale.

iTablet concept from Yanko Design

iTablet mockup from Yanko Design.

Interest in the hypothetical Apple iSlate or iTablet — the hybridized descendant of the iPhone/iPod Touch, the Mac and the Newton— never seems to die, as new (or recycled) rumors swirl with the approach of every Apple-sponsored gathering. The iPhone/Touch branch of the Apple family tree is beginning to unfold with new models and a true third-party development environment, so most of the foundations for a multitouch-enabled tablet device are already laid down. Yet, the machine remains forever on the horizon, a mere glimmer in every Apple fan’s eye. Perhaps — as Apple competitors have discovered — the matter of making such a machine usable and polished to Apple standards is far more than a simple supersizing of what already exists. Given what we know about existing machines, it’s instructive to look at what the iTablet/iSlate might be, along with some of the substantial interface issues that Apple will need to solve before such a machine can become reality.

Look, Touch and Feel

iTablet

The iTablet, based on a rendering posted at TechEBlog.

The iTablet will likely follow the evolving design themes emerging from Cupertino, continuing the convergence toward aluminum and black that characterize recent Apple machines. The critical acclaim and hotcakes-like acceptance of the MacBook Air guarantees that slimness and lightness will be a priority, and by their omission, optical drives will be given another small push toward obsolescence.

The mockups shown here are beautiful, but I think they’re wrong in at least one other key respect — a touch- and stylus-enabled tablet from Apple would be running a scaled-up variant of the iPhone multitouch interface (Mobile OS X) rather than a scaled-down version of Mac OS X. This avoids the problems that Windows has on Tablet PCs, where traditional Windows interface elements designed for precise mouse control are pressed into service for use with the highly-imprecise fingertip (or somewhat better stylus). Instead, the iTablet would have a new version of the slick iPhone OS X that’s specifically designed for touch input. Controls are sized larger and tasks are logically set up for touch interactions. Gestures for navigation and zooming are fully integrated and intuitive. A pressure-sensitive, Wacom-type stylus might be included as an additional input device, for the artists and graphic designers who would be a key (read “drooling at the thought”) market for such a machine.

iTablet concept image from looprumors.com

If Mobile OS X is indeed used, it opens the question of how more-computer-like tasks will be handled. The larger and more capable form factor implies more complex usage scenarios such as editing between multiple documents, and with it comes an increased expectation or desire to do more than one thing at a time. In the iPhone’s paradigm, very few apps are allowed to multitask in the background and, from a user’s perspective, a single task takes over the entire machine at any given moment. Apple will need to figure out a new method for task switching, while still balancing against the device’s more limited battery and cpu resources. Further, Mobile OS X has no user-accessible equivalent to the Mac Finder to manipulate files. While it’s very possible that Apple will choose to keep it that way, a new paradigm for transferring user files onto the system and allowing access within appropriate apps will still need to defined and integrated into the user interface. The searchable hierarchical lists used in the iPhone’s iTunes Store or the Mac’s Spotlight search app may point the way to how this might work, but much remains to be done.

Screens, Pixels and Thumbs

In my earlier specifications for an ideal ebook reader, I thought that a 12″ display would be ideal. Now, after using a 12″ Lenovo X61T Tablet PC, a 6″ Sony Reader and a 3.5″ iPhone, I’ve changed my mind. The high pixel density and high contrast of the iPhone’s display allows for good readability at reduced text sizes, and the weight and battery life penalties suffered by the Tablet PC make a smaller screen even more attractive. At four pounds, the the X61T gets to be uncomfortable while reading in bed, for example. A high-pixel-density 5.25″ display — as conjectured by the rumor sites — would provide very usable screen real estate without unduly compromising portability or power consumption.

Screen size has other significant implications for the iTablet’s user interface. The virtual keyboard would have room for larger and more widely spaced keys than on an iPhone, but their size and positioning are constrained by the physical reach of the user’s thumbs if the keyboard is to be used in a two-handed, iPhone-style landscape typing position. The bigger the screen, the more necessary it becomes for Apple to develop a smart solution distinct from the simple layout used in the iPhone. Larger screens also open up the possibility of typing on the screen while it rests in landscape mode on a flat surface, more like a traditional (albeit shrunken) computer keyboard than a Blackberry. This usage implies yet another keyboard layout, and Apple would then need to make the machine clever enough to display the right one at the right time. Sensors could detect this orientation similar to the way they currently detect rotation and face proximity — doable, but clearly requiring yet more development.

Suite Apps

Macs, iPhones and iPods all ship with complete suites of applications that allow the machines to perform the functions that they were designed for, all while showing off the machine’s capabilities. By virtue of its screen size, the iTablet is inherently better suited for reading and editing longer documents (like ebooks) than the iPhone. The latter’s smaller screen is not as well suited for this purpose, and the resulting compromised user experience is probably one reason why Apple has not made reader software a priority to this point. In contrast, the iTablet will be a very able platform for ebook reading, and it’s virtually certain that Apple will create an app to show off this strength. Similarly, a stylus-enabled iTablet would make a beautiful handwriting notebook and sketch pad, and it seems very possible that Apple will create a simple app to show off this functionality.

If Not Now, Then When?

That’s the big question. Nearly a year has passed since the iPhone’s debut, and a second generation phone is already expected this year. On the other hand, the issues sampled here suggest that an iTablet is far more than a physical upscaling of the iPhone. Many incremental but still substantial additions and adaptations are needed, and getting it right takes time.

Related Posts

iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
iPhone and eBooks: the Video
iPhone and iPod: Dense Pixels, Happy Eyes
eBook Reader Technology Scorecard
iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions

iPhone + Ebooks: Partial Solutions, July Dreams

With the recent beta release of the iPhone SDK and the corresponding system software update due in July, reading ebooks on the iPhone (and iTouch) will finally become a straightforward, typically Apple experience. A PDF reader should appear particularly quickly given that the format is native on the iPhone’s flavor of OS X, just as it is with its cousin, the Mac. The other piece of the puzzle — local file handling and storage — will undoubtedly be high on developers’ lists.

When July and its expected tidal wave of iPhone apps arrive, our book reading problems should be solved.

Readdle logoIn the meantime, though, the options for reading available today have evolved quite a bit since I last surveyed the scene. For example, the web app Readdle has been around since last summer, providing free hosting space for files up to 5MB — 50 MB total — for non-DRM PDF (like ebooks from WOWIO) and other files including doc, fb2, gif, html, jpeg, rtf, txt, xls and pdb. Uploading an ebook or other document to this private, password-protected space allows you to read it anywhere with Internet access.

Readdle screen shots
Navigating Readdle.

Other nice features include a Mac app to simplify uploads (though the web interface and email interfaces are fine too), user-definable categories for organizing files and an option for creating a Safari bookmark for offline reading. Unfortunately, the latter is limited to very small files less than 100kb, limiting its usefulness.

As you can see from the screenshots, the web app works well and as advertised. The iPhone-friendly interface is clean and nicely implemented. My books, like Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, are easily accessed, along with a small collection of public domain titles provided by Readdle.

The only major limitations — and they’re significant ones — are the file size limit and lack of bookmarking for PDFs. 5MB per file is a bit skimpy for larger PDFs, particularly graphics-laden titles like comics or visually-oriented nonfiction, along with text titles built from scanned pages. This is an understandable limit, however, given Safari’s tendency to crash when opening files above 8MB. I suspect Readdle is being conservative to maintain a stable user experience. Bookmarking is another longstanding issue, and one that’s common to all available PDF reading solutions on the iPhone. Readdle does provide bookmarking for books in html, txt, rtf and pdb formats, but the nature of PDF makes this impossible to do from a web browser.

To resolve these limitations shared by Readdle and every other Mobile Safari-based reading solution, we’re once again left waiting for the solutions that are likely to arrive in July. Soon, soon…

iPhone book page

A page from Oh Pure and Radiant Heart on the iPhone via Safari and Readdle.

Related Posts

iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions
iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
iPhone and iPod: Dense Pixels, Happy Eyes
eBook Reader Technology Scorecard
iPhone + Comics: (Not) Seeing the Big Picture
iPhones and eBooks: The Video

It’s the Thought that Counts? Gifting in a Virtual World

As social networking has become a fixture in our lives, it’s only natural that the personal exchanges that occur in our offline lives — like gifting — are migrating to the virtual realm, too. I’ve looked on with some curiosity as the concept of virtual gifting has taken hold in Facebook and other venues. Can gifts that exist purely in digital form really take the place of tangible, physical presents?

On Facebook, gifts often take the form of graphical tokens that are sold for a small cost (typically $1) and are displayed on the recipient’s profile. They have no functionality beyond the symbolic — their value comes from being tokens of good will or affection, along with being the virtual approximation of a very visible display of flowers delivered at the office.

facebook gifts

Virtual gifting in Facebook.

So are people really buying these things?

I’ve personally sent some of the freebie versions of the Facebook gifts in the past year. Apparently, I believed that these tokens had some value both to the recipient and to me since I went to the trouble of sending them. On the other hand, I was never convinced enough to actually spend real money. By some estimates, however, Facebook is currently selling them at a rate of about 270,000 gifts per week — equivalent to $15 million in revenue, annually. Clearly, a lot of people are not like me — for them, the nominal monetary cost is outweighed by the convenience and symbolic value.

At WOWIO, we’ve been thinking about this phenomenon and considering it against the more traditional venues for gift giving, such as greeting cards and physical objects like books. WOWIO’s ebooks straddle the line between virtual and physical — as digital files, they’re clearly in the virtual realm, but as a medium for ideas and communication, they’re not so different from their paper counterparts. Further, the ebook’s written content has a powerful inherent symbolism that can go far beyond the purely visual representations of Facebook-style tokens.

Given this natural fit, we developed a new feature at the WOWIO site that allows registered users to gift ebooks in just this way. In sending my own ebook gifts, the process is remarkably familiar — it’s not unlike shopping for a paper-based gift book. I find a title that fits with the purpose of the gift and resonates with my relationship with the recipient, virtually wrap it in a decorated dust jacket appropriate to the occasion, and write a note on the ebook’s inside cover. The big difference is in the immediacy and relatively low cost of the gift. Delivery is as instantaneous as the Internet can make it, while the pricing ($3–5) makes it much more of an impulse gift, like Facebook’s tokens.

personalized ebook

Gifting a WOWIO ebook.

It will be fascinating to see how this fares in the coming months. If any of you are using (or even just thinking about using) this feature, I’d love to hear how you are using it and what you think of the process.