Dec 21

Mike Hendrickson

Mike Hendrickson

OLPC and the Kindle

When I saw the One Laptop Per Child device, I just had to tinker around with it. So during an hour-long train ride home I explored the little OLPC and was quite impressed. I was impressed because it is a fully functional computer, with a screen size a tad larger than the Kindle from Amazon. I don't think these two devices will compete with each other for market position, but they both have some features that put them in a similar category. And they both cost $399, although the OLPC's price buys two devices -- one for a youngster somewhere in the world who will make good use of it, and one for you to help get more apps built for it.

Both the Kindle and OLPC can browse the Web. However, the Kindle was designed to browse Amazon's library of content to purchase. The OLPC has a Firefox browser and it truly operates like it was meant to browse. The Kindle uses Whispernet from Amazon, which is quite impressive in its coverage. It is not painfully slow either. I have read GMail with the Kindle and checked basketball scores on I did a quick bit of math. If you are paying roughly $49 a month for an internet service provider, you could buy a Kindle and use Whispernet for free. After about eight months, your Kindle would have paid for itself in the savings you were shelling out for an ISP. I am not going to do this myself, but it is possible for low-volume browsing and internet useage. I am hoping the browser delivered in the Experimental section of the Kindle improves with time. I believe Amazon has a good opportunity to make this a very compelling device, even more than it already is. I do like the reading quality of the Kindle. The reading experience is excellent if you keep your thumbs off the sides. I have well-trained/controlled thumbs now. I have a Sony Reader as well and, I am sorry to say, that it just does not compete well with the Kindle's intuitiveness and readability.

But the unexpected entrant is the OLPC. I know it is not intended to be an e-book reader solely, but it does that function very well. I logged into our Safari Books Online and -- voila. A nice experience. For a couple of weeks now, I have been trying to get my Kindle to get into Safari and have had no luck. The OLPC was a snap. I did have some DNS issues so I used the IP address of Safari [] and that resolved things. The OLPC has another competitive advantage over the Kindle as far as reading e-content -- the OLPC can handle PDF documents just fine. This is a huge advantage. Open any PDF you like and it works. The Kindle requires that you send a document to Amazon for conversion if you want to get it on your device. If you navigate to a PDF with the Kindle browser, it just craps-out because it was not meant to read PDF. I do not understand why the Kindle does not read PDF [the Sony Reader reads PDF quite well] other than Amazon wants to force the proprietary mobi-format on publishers and consumers. This gets me steamed. We have Apple with its wonderfully loaded iPhone forcing buyers to use one cellular service. We have Amazon not accepting the standard PDF format of web documents. Whatever happened to innovators shooting for ubiquity rather than lock-in and lock-down? I just don't get these two cases.

That leaves me with the wonderfully crafted and delivered OLPC. What's not to like about it? Okay, my fingers are too fat for the keyboard, because it was designed for a younger and smaller person. But the keyboard is no more difficult to get use to than a Kindle, Blackberry, iPhone or other small device. And actually it has many function keys that take you directly to menus, scrolls, and page jumps. So one of the big wins is also the business of the OLPC. It is open. It is Linux underneath. It is not going to lock you in, down, or out.

This first picture is the Kindle and OLPC side-by-side. Click to see a larger shot.


The second shot is the OLPC reading Safari Books Online content, Javascript The Definitive Guide, 5th Edition


The bottom line: Both of these devices are going to be around for along time. I hope that Amazon sees the potential of their device and realizes that OPEN is going to get it more consumers laying down $399 than a closed proprietary device. It will also ensure that a publishing ecosystem will build around them. As for the OLPC: here's to you folks. Nicely done. A wonderfully crafted device, a noble vision, and an Open mindset. Brilliant!

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Comments: 27

  philip [12.21.07 10:16 AM]

nice, though the laptop now is called the "XO laptop", OLPC being the name of the initiative behind it.

  Bill M [12.21.07 11:07 AM]

I work at a University and my wife is finishing her bachelors degree as well. Readers, like the Kindle, have to *eventually* be embraced as the method of choice for the dissemination of educational content vs. the text book. eInk makes it so comfortable to read and Amazon's practice of charging for content instead of a fee per KB of download makes it more practical. Make the Kindle backpack friendly and you've got a winner. It infuriates me when my wife tells me the $200.00 book she just bought for a class can not be sold back because the teacher has changed texts. Not to mention the pure weight of the books she has to carry.

However, you are right about the pdf issue. eInk is black and white only and pdfs allow everything from color to audio/video, forms, 3D modeling, etc.

Here's a thought... with the one-for-me-one-for-you model, students could buy a real laptop and feel really good about helping someone else. Win-Win! Wonder how that would fly when Universities are so into making sweetheart deals with computer manufacturers?

This is an exciting time,though, isn't it?

Great article...I'll be back.

  jason [12.21.07 11:53 AM]

Does anyone have any thoughts on the Bookeen Cybook reader?
It seems to be a bit more open than the kindle and offers native support for PDF, HTML, Palm, Txt, and Mobipocket. It does images and MP3's as well. It is about $50 cheaper than the kindle, but no wireless. Let me know...

  nick [12.21.07 02:21 PM]

I think we need to shoot for a future where you can read the some book across multiple devices. A scenario like the following:
* hear an author interviewed on NPR over the web
* buy the ebook
* start reading on the PC - you like the book, it's compelling
* go to meet someone for lunch, continue reading on your cell phone
* time for a run, your mp3 player does voice synth from where you left off
* a little reading in bed on the cell phone
Parts of this chain are in place now, but the drive seems to be to 'divide and lock in'.

  Stefan Jones [12.21.07 02:53 PM]

Thanks for the comparison.

I ordered two "buy one give one" XO laptops. One of the things I had in mind for it is use as a eBook viewer, and I'm glad to hear it does the job.

  Michael R. Bernstein [12.21.07 03:34 PM]

personally, I'd be willing to give Amazon a pass on opening the device itself if they just opened the .azw/.mobi/.prc format, or supported any other open ebook format.

That's setting the bar pretty low, and I think it is unconscionable that they haven't cleared it.

  Frank Daley [12.21.07 03:46 PM]

The fact that the OLPC has not gone as expected is now well documented.

In any organization, failures or unexpected turns of events are a fact of life. However, one of the differentiators of a truly great organization is that it quickly learns from failures and moves forward.

What this article highlights is that the OLPC has another HUGE volume opportunity in promoting the device as an ebook reader. Therefore the OLPC project should quickly move to release the product into the global market, and continue to use profits from sales in the US, Europe etc to provide even better support in the less rich countries (especially training of teachers and support staff).

OLPC - please act sooner rather than later.

  Charbax [12.21.07 05:55 PM]

Any company who would like to make money, should take the open source OLPC hardware and software, redesign it slightly to fit western adult market and profetionnals, and sell it a bit over $200 in WalMart. Yes it's a great ebook reader with 23 hour battery life in that mode.

Thanks for this XO and Kindle picture, that's now my new desktop background. Two of the three most awesome and revolutionary products today (I would put the Archos 605 WiFi on that list).

  jpa [12.21.07 06:49 PM]

cant read pdf's =nice display but cant use it

  Chris [12.21.07 07:07 PM]

> The bottom line: Both of these devices are going to be around for along time.

Not quite -- the XO *stops* being on sale to the public in ten days, when the Give 1 Get 1 program finishes. Get them while they're hot. :)

- Chris.

  Vince Nibler [12.21.07 07:41 PM]

With the Give One Get One program you also get a $200 tax deduction and one year of t-mobile service. By my calculations that's nearly free. As for the functionality of the two devices, the Kindle doesn't hold a candle.

  chris [12.22.07 10:14 AM]

I am a big fan of the Sony Reader. Forget the whole file compatibility issue. I have several freeware programs (Book Designer being the best so far) that can convert pdf, doc, lit, or any other files to work just fine with the Reader. I have several thousand books now for it. I also don't have to worry about emailing them to my reader and paying a few. I just upload them in seconds. Sure the Kindle is neat, but for the extra hundred I get to pay for books anywhere (why would we need this? It holds over a hundred books at a time!) with the loss of free uploads of thousands of free books. No thanks. I love my Sony Reader.

  Alexandre Dulaunoy [12.22.07 11:33 AM]

There is in the git repository of the olpc project, a nice ebook reader (still in alpha). The nice idea is the reader is just relying on the browser.;a=summary

Maybe time to contribute a little bit on the small project ?

  Brian Cain [12.23.07 01:41 PM]

I have a Kindle, and have read five books so far. It's great except it's hard to hold without accidentally pushing a "page turn" button. Also it would be nice to have a stand fold out from the back so you could read "hands free".
There is a great site for free books for the Kindle at
They have over 19,000 books that can be downloaded to your computer and transfered to the Kindle with the USB cable that comes with the Kindle.

  Wogster [12.23.07 07:02 PM]

I can see other uses for an XO type device, for example salesmen, rather then needing to haul around a full laptop, with all the baggage, to collect customer orders, they pull out an XO type device. Might need a larger storage capacity though, but with digital camera memory cards now up to 16GB, that should be easy.

  Jason [12.24.07 12:02 AM]

Very interesting comparison! The OLPC/Kindle story has been featured on

  Barry [12.24.07 07:08 AM]

My wife is blind. I understand that you cannot download audio books directly onto Kindle.

If I am not mistaken, you have to buy the book from (at their higher prices), download it to your computer and then get it onto the Kindle. If so, it is too complicated a process for a blind person to deal with, and, of course, too costly.

Can it be done more directly on my newly acquired XO?

I bought the XO for my 7 year old granddaughter but I would gladly get another for my wife.


  Alex Bogak [12.24.07 11:24 AM]

I think that this is a cool post, proving what I was thinking in my post "Better than Kindle", where I compared kindle to 3 other devices: Nokia's N800/810, Asus Eee701 PC, and OLPC.

I believe that an OLPC is more functional for me than a kindle would be.

  Harold Neal [12.25.07 06:45 AM]

Don't forget the Asus EEE PC. I bought it on a lark, figuring it would end up on my Shelf of Unused Gadgets, but it has become essential. With Acrobat, Google Reader, and Google Gears (the later two via the full version of Firefox), I'm able to get so much more reading done than before. And for light browsing, it's much more comfortable than lugging around my big laptop. And don't forget an eager, rapidly-growing user community that provides hacks and useful info.

  Stoyan Zhekov [12.26.07 12:00 AM]

Maybe no need to wait for Amazon to open the Kindle:

  David Haimes [12.30.07 10:29 PM]

I ordered an XO for two reasons, firstly I want to help bridge the digital divide and secondly I really want to take a look at the XO and will give it to my 3 year old and see what he makes of it.

At the moment the give one get one program form one laptop per child expires in a few days and that is the only way to get one in the US.

  Curious [12.31.07 01:48 PM]

This program closes today. Unfortunately, laptops ordered in mid November still aren't scheduled to show up until med January. The reviews are great, but I'd like to play with one before shelling out the cash for a small arsenal of them!

  Curious [12.31.07 01:49 PM]

This program closes today. Unfortunately, laptops ordered in mid November still aren't scheduled to show up until med January. The reviews are great, but I'd like to play with one before shelling out the cash for a small arsenal of them!

  Jon h [12.31.07 09:10 PM]

Barry wrote:"My wife is blind. I understand that you cannot download audio books directly onto Kindle."

Why would you buy the kindle specifically for audiobooks? Even if you could download audiobooks the same way you download texts, the kindle's shopping interface probably doesn't have a screen reader.

Surely an mp3 player would be better and cheaper. An iPod touch would probably allow wireless downloads from the itunes store, but you'd run into the lack of a screen reader again.

When the iPhone/touch development kit comes out this spring, perhaps someone will implement a voice synthesis screen reader for it, which would let it read e-books to you.

  Eric [01.01.08 01:25 AM]

What I really like about OLPC is their lack of a hard disk, the power crank, and its innovative battery (which lasts much longer than conventional cells as it uses new chemistry).
I'm wonder if the folks at OLPC have thought about adopting some of these new stuff into used notebooks - I, for instance, would love to rip the CD drive, the hard disk and the old battery out from my used Dell laptop and incorporate some of the newer components from OLPC.
I would pay for these new components + labor and will donate a brand new OLPC.

  Barry Appel [01.08.08 07:17 PM]

Jon h referred my blind wife to an iPod touch. Jon, I appreciate your thoughts but a blind person cannot use a touch screen - or a mouse - or a "smartphone's" slick flat keypad and sight-oriented menus. She has a screen reader on her home laptop. She can download at 19.95 a pop versus Kindle's 9.99. Kindle accepts Audible books but only after you buy them from Audible (at higher prices)and then download them a second time onto the K., making the "convenient" K not so convenient for ten million not so fortunate potential users.

  Karen [06.28.08 07:59 AM]

I bought an XO laptop from OLPC through the G1G1 program with the specific intention of using it as an e-book reader. Or, more accurately, a pdf file reader, as I don't plan to purchase the commercial e-books but to catch up on some pdfs I've downloaded to my "grown up" laptop but never seemed to get around to reading.

I am here to report that it's a success! The XO has three USB ports, so transferring my reading files onto a USB flash drive works smoothly. The screen rotates and folds back on itself like a tablet or dedicated e-book reader, although there's a bug in the navigation buttons--they don't shift when you rotate the screen. But it's still way better than a conventional laptop, both in form factor and portability. Very easy to carry and use on my commute to/from work.

To address some comments above:

G1G1 closed at the end of 2007, but there is talk it will return later this year.

Yes, OLPC has gone through some controversial staff changes, but the wiki and user forums remain active and XOs really are getting out to children in developing nations. Radical change, whether in technology, education or culture, rarely goes smoothly--and to change all three at once!!

The XO has a built-in speaker and there is now an activity called Speak that reads lines of text typed into it. Don't know if there's a modification that would read an e-book aloud, but worth looking into. (And if you or someone you know is a programmer, the hardware is there; write some code to make it work and no doubt you'll have a grateful audience for it.)

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