Digital Finds

joseph dot reeves at thehumanjourney dot net

Why Openmoko instead of a small laptop?

May 13, 2008 by Joseph Reeves

Last week we had a visit from a group of Southampton Uni MSc students and during our little talk/Q&A session it became apparent that I should write this post. There were two deciding moments; first Leif asked us why were looking at the Openmoko platform rather than the OLPC XO unit, and then Jo commented that at OA "we also do Archaeology too". This post then aims to answer Leif's question and hopefully demonstrates that everything we do in the IT department is archaeological.

Work on the One Laptop Per Archaeologist begun by familiarising myself inside and out with the OLPC XO units. The idea was simple; these small, child and weather proof, computers would be used by Archaeologists in the field to record context sheets and other pens-and-paper data in a digital format. Field staff would no longer have clipboards, they'd have computers; we'd move the office out into the elements and provide the folks out there with some of the resources we take for granted in here.

The most important thing learnt from the XO unit is that the OLPC project is not centred upon the production of a techological item, but on a learning environment for kids. This is crucial; if we follow the example set by the OLPC foundation then we can say that we don't want a computer nor a flashy piece of equipment, we want a tool for archaeologists. Specifically we want a pervasive digital archaeological environment that is core to the recording process rather than an adjunct to it.

The second thing learnt from the OLPC model is that you support your pervasive structure not by providing applications, but by providing activities. Say, for example, you want someone to write something, you don't give them a copy of OpenOffice or some proprietary nonsense, instead you give them a writing activity. You base the activities not around the applications that are required to run them, but the learning outcome you want to achieve. Similarly then, we won't be providing field staff with the applications required to edit database entries, but with the context sheet activity.

The OLPC XO unit therefore shows us that we don't necessarily want a laptop at all, all we want is something that runs activities for us and can work outside. There's plenty of things that do this already; mobile phones, GPS receivers, iPods and gameboys to name but a few. This opens up a wealth of new possibilities; why not include the functionality of a GPS, or a mobile phone? How can we improve the usability of the tool by adopting a form factor that isn't a laptop? How can we deal with the mental and emotional responses to this new tool by making it look, feel and operate not like a laptop?

The OLPC teaches us that not only do we not want a laptop, but also that the activities we do require will be best supported by different hardware; we produce a more pervasive computing environment by thinking as little as possible about computers.

Cheap and ultra portable computers are coming into fashion, Linux is getting everywhere and Microsoft is extending XP's life to try and keep up. It's often suggested that we buy something like the Asus EeePC for every member of staff, but this misses the point completely; little laptops produce a computing experience different from the always-on, always-communicating archaeological tool we're aiming for. What we want is a FreeRunner.


Hello Joseph,
I was wondering about your "always-on, always-communicating archaeological tool" point. Why couldn't an EEE701 with olsrd activated be the answer, especially modded up with a 3G module? I'm a fervent supporter of Openmoko but nonetheless it seems to me that an EEE with its 2 usb ports open wider possibilities than a Freerunner. Plug in a cheap handheld graphical tablet and you get sketching capacities, gigabytes of flash storage (more so on 901, indeed) may come in handy, computing power is much better (900Mhz on 701). Another point of interest is the touchscreen of Freerunner. Taking notes in the field implies getting the machine in a not-so-clean environment (yes, I've read about the rubber mini-usb keyboard and all), especially in sandy countries (Egypt and Yemen for example...), which means the screen will get scratched as soon as hell.
Of course, your form factor point is worthy, but XO or EEE (or Wind or whatever...) seem to me to keep a usability/usefulness edge towards a mobiputer such as Freerunner.

What's your take on this?

Posted by Kheldar on July 17, 2008 at 09:16 AM BST #

Hi Kheldar,

Thanks for your comments. I think of archaeology as a discipline of communication; I don't want to give our staff a small computer, I want to give them a tool for communicating details concerning the evidence that represents the past. A mobile phone is something everyone uses for interpersonal communications as it is, as such it's not a big change to start using a phone to communicate details of the past.

The EEE is small, but it won't fit in your pocket, it also won't survive the elements as well as a FreeRunner (if it rains we can put the phone in a bag and keep using it exactly the same), it won't take a solar input as easily and you can't call people on it. We will fit all our phones with screen protectors :-)

Small computers are good, but people aren't thinking small enough. Mark Shuttleworth talks about the desire for a device rather than a PC; we're just taking this statement to it's logical conclusion.

Posted by Joseph Reeves on July 18, 2008 at 06:25 AM BST #

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