Opera on the green machine

On Friday, I received a call from Opera's accounting department. That normally means trouble. My warning lights starts flashing.

There's a package for you waiting here. I'm looking for the invoice for customs purposes. Can I open it?

Sure, I said, hoping to quickly return to whatever I was doing.

There's no invoice inside. Strange. The value has been declared to be 100 dollars

100 dollars?

Yes. There's a machine inside the package. It's cute. Green.




As the alert reader has figured out by now, the machine inside the box was a prototype of the $100 laptop from the OLPC project. Since then, I've kept the machine close to me, but lots of people around here have seen it. The Opera geeks gathered around it at the Friday night beer bash. Someone suggested testing to see if the machine could keep running in rough environments. For example, would the rubbery keyboard withstand beer? Better not try.

Invariably, the machine gets attention. It attracts people more than any other unit I've seen. (Only Wii comes close.) People want to see it, touch it, and feel it. They want to know why the USB ports are placed where they are (on both sides of the screen), how the SD card can be inserted (the SD port is under the screen), and where the crank is. The crank, meant to generate power to run the machine, was part of an early design. It has been replaced with a foot pedal which is still under construction. However, it seems that people somehow got emotionally attached to the hand crank and want it back.

Once the machine is turned on, a Linux boot sequence appears. Red Hat is one of the sponsors and the machine comes with a tuned version of Fedora. New boot images are published regularly, and the first thing to do was to install the latest build. All of this is documented at the project's Wiki. The next thing to do was to find a shell. The magical key combination is Alt-Shift-F11. However, the keys don't have function numbers and finding F11 requires counting. When you get it right, a shell appears and you can start typing. Typing would have been easier if my hands were smaller. That's a feature, not a bug.

For me, the next thing to do was to install Opera. This is also the reason why the OLPC people are kind enough to send us an early prototype: we want to make sure the machine has a choice of good browsers. The browser is easily the most important application on the machine. In fact, a modern browser is more than an application — it could be the platform onto which OLPC applications are built, like Opera Platform is for mobile phones. OLPC has decided to only include open source software on the machine. I have discussed this issue at length with Nicholas, Walter and Mako. At Opera, we think that what really counts is open standards. It's less important what runs inside the box as long as what crosses the wire is standards-compliant. They argue that, in an education project, students must be allowed to peek inside the box. That's nice, I say, but if Opera makes the difference between a usable or an unusable machine, perhaps you will reconsider?

Getting Opera to run was quite simple. The statically linked rpm package of Opera 9.10 downloads and installs easily. Only the static version will run out of the box, as the box doesn't have Qt on it. Seeing Opera run on the OLPC for first time was a revelation — no browser has ever been more beautiful. The resolution of the screen is stunning (200dpi) and Opera makes the most of the embedded DejaVu fonts. At the moment, we are struggling with a problem that seems to be caused by Opera. When visiting sites that use JavaScript heavily, the machine freezes intermittently. We're also trying out various builds of Opera on the machine. Qt is cute, but it comes at a price (in MBs, that is). We'll be playing with a non-Qt version and measuring performance in the time to come. Also, on our todo list is making an OLPC skin.

I also installed Prince, a web-to-PDF-through-CSS converter (disclosure: I'm a director in the company). The Prince6 alpha installed flawlessly, started up with prince -s wiki.css http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Home out.pdf, thus fetching a the web page and combining it with a local style sheet. The resulting PDF file has footnotes and all. Nice achievement for a small machine!

Needless to say, I'm a great fan of the OLPC project. The altruistic nature of the project is compelling. Giving children in the third world access to information through a durable machine without paying the MS-tax is all good. However, I want no less for my own children. Many kids in the first world will ask their parents for laptops this Christmas. Should their wish be granted? Will they be better off with $1000 (including MS-tax) laptop? I think not — we should give them $100 laptops instead, like the children of Massachusetts have been promised. At a global level, kids in rich and poor countries would be using the same machine. At a local level, the children of rich and poor parents would be using the same machine. As such, the machine will be an equalizer. And our kids will be spared a bleak future in the MS-Office tar pit.

howcome 2006-12-18