Last Tuesday afternoon, about an hour after Apple announced its new uber-designed, ultra-light Macbook Air laptop computer, there was a knock on my front door.

The Fedex guy handed me a small squarish cardboard box. Inside I found an uber-designed, light, little laptop. No, it was not the Air. It was an XO, a mobile plastic computer from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative.

This is a story about how alike, and how very different, the two laptops are.

The OLPC project was started by former MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte with the aim of providing educational tools and experiences that will allow children, even in the poorest countries, to achieve their full potential.

The XO is central to that mission. It’s moulded from green and white plastic, sports cute, movable bunny WiFi ears, a spill-proof, slime-coloured keyboard can share a wireless signal with its nearby XO neighbours and has a video camera and microphone built-in. It comes loaded with tons of word processing, programming, music, reading and web browsing tools. The entire Linux-based operating system is built around collaboration. It costs under $200.

Drop a couple dozen into a poor village, add some basic infrastructure and training and you create a web-connected mesh network of young people who can learn and play together online and who have silicon windows into the same wide, wired world we all take for granted. The XO doesn’t level the playing field, but it sure tilts it in a winning direction.

I had ordered the laptop back in December through the OLPC’s Buy One Give One program in which folks in North America could order two XOs, one for them and one for a child in a developing country. I call it selfish altruism. The Buy One Give One program is over now, but if you’d like to donate an XO laptop without getting one yourself, you can.

I’ll be giving the one I have here to a child in another country soon.

XOs are already in schools in Peru and Uruguay. Mexico is next on the list. There are also pilot programs in Cambodia, Thailand, Mongolia, Nepal, India, Pakistan and about a dozen other countries. This is an idea I love.

Then, there’s the Macbook Air.

The Macbook Air was designed by Apple because Steve Jobs wanted to create the thinnest laptop in the world. To me, that’s about as sensible as creating the shortest ladder. The Air looks like the love child of an iPod nano and an aluminum cookie sheet. It is ultra-thin and geek-sexy and pushes the edges of chip engineering and industrial design. No doubt it will be a thing of beauty to hold. But, it is also as vital as a fur bidet. The Air has the same width and breadth as a normal laptop, so, really, its not much more portable. Yes, you can slip it into an inter-office mailing envelope âe” but not a purse, big pocket or small bag.

This is a computer for someone who has everything, including two to three other computers and, probably, a Rabbit wine bottle opener, a ceramic paring knife and an order in for a Tesla Roadster. The Macbook Air is a mid-life crisis laptop. It’s a trophy computer. If it had a name, it would be Bambi with a heart dotting the i.

The thing costs $1,700 (or over $3,000 with a flash drive) and is not nearly as useful as a regular Macbook. In fact, it’s the slowest Apple computer you can buy right now. You can’t replace the battery and you can’t plug an ethernet cable into it.

Apple claims that’s because we’re surrounded by wireless options. Not when I visit most of my clients, I’m not.

It has no optical drive, has half the hard drive space of an iPod Classic and lacks a Kensington laptop lock slot. It’s as high maintenance as it is skinny. You could make it a fully functional computer with a sack full of dongles, but that would raise the price to over $2,000 and the weight and bulk to over five pounds.

Apple reps claim to have a clear picture of the consumer who would buy this computer. So do I. He has the word “sucker” written on his bald, aging forehead in large red letters. Nobody I know wants to buy one. But then, nobody I know uses $100 bills as table shims either.

It seems clear to me that the Macbook Air is a niche stepping-stone to something else. Apple forced Intel into developing a tiny CPU for the laptop, and the chip giant wouldn’t have done that unless they see a huge market for the midget Core 2 Duo processor. The Air is not a huge market. But, in an earnings call on Tuesday, Apple tipped its hand a little. In the call, the iPod Touch was described as “a new mainstream, WiFi, mobile platform.” So, the Air is just fleecing the frivolous to squeeze some early return on some serious R&D spending for a future Apple tablet.

While the XO laptop will open a world of possibilities for young people the world over, the Macbook Air just answers the question: “What will Michael Bloomberg be using as placemats at his next dinner party?”

So, here’s my suggestion. Apple should start its own Give One Get One program. Everybody who actually orders a Macbook Air should be required to donate an XO laptop to a deserving child. At least that way the Air can be both thin and rich âe” with possibilities.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...