olpc is genius

If you haven’t done so already, go read the OLPC HIG now. I swear to God, this document is a work of pure, inspired genius. Will it work? I don’t know. But if you have an ounce of interest in your body for design, you will admire their balls and creativity.

This UI is quite simply one of the deepest and most interesting redesigns of the desktop user interface ever produced. It makes MacOS look like what it is – boring and unoriginal. The list of things this UI gets right is so long it makes my head spin:

  • It actually uses Fitts Law effectively. Compare that to Windows/MacOS/GNOME/KDE which basically do nothing with the 4 corners of the screen (maybe you can set a corner to activate the screensaver or something similarly rare).
  • Network and presence is fully integrated into the core of the design
  • They threw out the clipboard and replaced it with something that doesn’t suck
  • They junked 2.5D, which is something that regularly confuses less technical types or people who are older and haven’t grown up with WIMP style ui (notice how many Windows users have every window maximized all the time and simply use the taskbar to switch between active tasks).
  • They junked the address bar. You can still type in URLs but now it just shows you the title of the page. I want them to make anything you type in here go to a search if it doesn’t parse as a URL – Firefox almost but not quite gets this right. Given that nearly all the top queries on Google are the names of websites, it’s quite clear that huge numbers of people still don’t understand the address bar and the structure of URLs despite them being everywhere around us. Usability studies done on web browsers also confirm this. And who can blame them? URLs not only have a stupid TLA as a name, they are full of weird punctuation and bizarre acronyms like “http”, “www”, “com” etc.
  • The Bulletin Board sharing concept is marvellous – a single, simple idea can be used to not only keep track of your own work, but to share it with others, and review/collaborate using spatial comments.
  • They junked open/save – wow, it only took like 15 years! The “Journal” acts as a temporal log of major things you do with the laptop, allowing for easy rewinding of any particular object (file/document) or even the state of the whole machine. The filing system is of course fully versioned. The Journal can even be used to track progress on a particular project or piece of work.
  • Process vs document has been cleaned up – every document is a separate instance of an activity (application) in the UI. This means an end to the confusing separation between “running application” and “document within that application”, the legacy of which still haunts us to this day.
  • Icons transmit information, and are SVG only. Basic activity icons are simplified to monochrome black/white icons. Once started, they are filled with the childs unique XO colour that represents them in the mesh. Therefore an instance of an activity can always be linked to who started it (assuming the users pick unique colours for themselves and aren’t totally colourblind like me). That’s a neat way of further integrating presence with the system, at the cost of reducing the visual attractiveness of the system significantly. Given that a lot of the time the screen will be in the black/white outdoor mode though, it probably makes sense.
  • Application bundles can be signed by whoever works on them – because there is a “view source” key on the keyboard, anybody can modify an app and distribute it. Some bundles can be signed by official authorities as a mark of trust. Signing or watermarking is used to keep track of the history of the object, allowing credit to be given. Officially signed bundles automatically update across the mesh, allowing updates to be distributed virally through a mix of the mesh and the sneakernet. There is no notification a bundle has been updated – it just happens behind the scenes. There is no explicit software installation, instead joining an activity found via the mesh will download it automatically.
  • However, writing viruses for this thing will be much harder if Ivan gets his stuff right (and I think he will), because the security model is totally different – bundles have a very limited but fine grained set of permissions. For instance a bundle cannot trigger a global/system notification. In other words the old user vs root security model has also been dumped.
  • The keyboard is adapted to the UI. They need to be careful with this – one of the buttons has a picture of lips and eyes, which I believe are considered offensive in some cultures. There is a “view source” key (overloads +=) that lets you see under the hood. There are analog slider keys for things like volume, etc. They removed caps lock (hurrah). I think they could have gone further with this, for instance, the “alt gr” key still exists. It has a legitimate use here but the label is still rather questionable. The trackpad area can be used both as a regular trackpad/mouse input and also as a graphics tablet (it’s much wider than a regular trackpad for this reason).

The HIG is not finished and significant work remains (eg widget definitions). Still, what’s there is fantastic. The existing computer design we use has changed only a bit since the Xerox PARC days, and OLPC is breathing some fresh air into the space. It could be a complete disaster, we won’t know until it’s been tried, but at least they are trying.

Incidentally I have now seen an actual laptop in real life. They are quite cute, much smaller than a regular laptop, though there were quite a lot of random holes/buttons/etc on the laptop that I think they should cut down on.

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4 Responses to “olpc is genius”

  1. Wayan Says:


    This is a great review of the OLPC HIG. Might you want to share a 300-500 word synopsis of this as a post on OLPC News?

  2. Mike Says:

    I guess I could do. But I’ve barely used it, I’m hardly qualified to do that. This was written based on the demo I saw at DAM3 and the HIG.

  3. Christopher Blizzard Says:

    We do have a huge amount of work left to do but I’m pretty excited about the prospects.

  4. 90 Percent of Everything » Blog Archive » Whinging about the OLPC’s lack of User-Centred Design again Says:

    [...] Maybe I should stop ranting about this but it really gets me going. The OLPC UI specs seem to have been revised slightly and it’s got some people saying things like “Wow!” “Genius!” “How Adventurous!” and that sort of thing. [...]

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