I was talking to an acquaintance about GNU/Linux on embedded devices the other day, and it occurred to me that OLPC could have been far better understood if it hadn't been framed as a laptop.

Yeah, I know it is a laptop, but it also isn't. I'd rather think of it as a learning assistant, rather than as a laptop.

When you tell people it's a laptop, they immediately start comparing its capabilities with those of a regular notebook. The madness of increasing processor performance, memory and disk capacity, regardless of actual users' needs, comes to mind. Also, the laptop-like "requirements" for running some version of Windows, Java and Flash, all that nonsense.

Now, few people have any such concerns when they think about digital cameras, DVD players, TV sets, cell phones, and, to a lesser extent, even PDAs. No matter how much the processor embedded in them is a general-purpose processor (sometimes even an x86), or the operating system it runs is a general-purpose operating system, framing such disguised computers as something else adjusts the perception and gets people to measure the devices on their own merits, for the purposes they were designed, rather than in comparison with the features of a regular personal computer.

Few people worry about what processor runs their cell phones, digital cameras, media recorders/players or wireless routers, or how fast it runs, or how much memory they have. They judge whether the device performs well enough the functions it was designed for. Why couldn't it have been this way with a learning device such as OLPC's X0?

Of course, it is a bit harder for people to forget that something that has a largish screen, an alphanumeric keyboard and a touchpad, and that can browse the web wirelessly and run word processors and games is a general purpose computer. The form factor that resembles a laptop, even if with smaller dimensions, is too much of a giveaway.

A cell-phone, with its smaller screen and numeric keyboard, is much easier to perceive as "not a computer", even though it is a portable and personal computer that may even be able to run the same applications. Even an Internet tablet with an attached alphanumeric keyboard isn't always perceived as a regular computer, so it's rarely compared with one, feature-wise. They are something else, different classes of devices; people don't look at them as limited notebooks that are missing such and such essential features, even though they are lighter, smaller, more power-efficient and sometimes even more capable than full-featured portable computers from some 15 years ago.

Now, picture of a communication device that is relatively small, so you can carry it with you pretty much wherever you want. You can communicate with others and surf on the Internet anywhere, at any time. Its battery lasts long enough for you to leave it always on. As expected, it has a microphone, a speaker, and even a camera. Its small-screen user interface is very much unlike what you're used to on your PC, but that's not a big deal: you can open your files, browse the web, read and communicate, and even play games, and you're quite happy about it.

So far, the description fits perfectly that of a modern cell phone, no? If I add that the microprocessor is not as powerful as the latest multi-core 64-bit x86 processors, that it doesn't have hundreds and hundreds of megabytes of memory, and that it doesn't even have a hard disk, it will sound even more like a cell phone, and people will still be quite happy with it.

Oddly, the regular keyboard, the large screen, and the ability to add SD and USB storage, rather than making the learning device designed by OLPC even more compelling, shifts the focus away from its real purpose, and people end up focusing on how much of a regular laptop it is not.

I'm sure the Wintel monopolies have had a big role in disparaging of the learning device as limited personal computers. But, really, it was OLPC that first framed the debate in these terms, by naming the project One Laptop Per Child, and choosing laptop.org as the Internet domain name.

Unfortunately, had it been One Learning Device Per Child, it would have made too much room for mocking and criticism: the OLD PC acronym would have been too hard to miss, although the current one might very well pass for OL'PC. One Portable Communicator Per Child could be misread as One Portable Computer Per Child, so it wouldn't work either. One Learning Assistant Per Child would be slightly better, especially in India, where talipot palm leaves (AKA ola) have been used as writing paper, but OLAPC still leaves room for people to think of them as OLA personal computers.

I couldn't think of suitable existing terms that make for a nice acronym, unfortunately. But when I put together the thoughts that it's a learning device, and that some X0 prototype was the strongest source of light available in some homes in Africa, the name that springs to mind is learntern: One Learntern Per Child. OLPC. Works for me. At least in English.

I have no doubt these are impossible to translate literally to other languages, but, given some creativity, it must be possible to come up with something that conveys at least some of the ideas of learning, communicating, shedding light, and being constantly available.

For example, in Portuguese/Spanish, it could be Aprêndice/Apréndice, that combines aprender (to learn) and apêndice/apéndice (appendage), that also sounds like a bit like aprende-se/aprendese com/con ele/él (one learns with it).

One might be tempted to add lâmpada (Portuguese for lightbulb) or lámpara (Spanish for lamp) to the mix, say Lamprêndice/Lampréndice, but then the key term, learning, sort of gets lost in the noise. Lamprendiz, that brings aprendiz (apprentice) into the picture, might work better, but then it doesn't sound so much like an object's name, but rather as a person's role.

Hey, I didn't say it was easy!

Another possibility for Iberian languages is sáber, that moves the stress in saber (the noun knowledge, or the verb to know) to the first syllable, such that it sounds a bit like cyber, and also like sabre (saber, as in Star Wars' light saber ;-). Um/Un Sáber Por Aluno/Alumno.

Cypiens, that rhymes with the Latin sapiens (wise), but that borrows the 'cy' from 'cyber', might also be workable. Commu cypiens (highlighting the communication goal), or Lumi cypiens (focusing on the enlightenment goal), would bring Homo sapiens to mind, which might be nice. That said, the connection with cyber might bring to mind the very notion of general-purpose computers that I'm arguing it should avoid.

In this sense, learntern, aprêndice and apréndice are far better. I don't think I have a perfect name, but I hope I made the point: OLPC needs to find a way to get people to stop comparing the X0 and its successors with regular laptop computers, and instead frame them as cleverly-designed learning assistants, such that they are evaluated on their merits as such, rather than posed as a competitor to the dumbed-down infantilized inexpensive laptops that have tried to immitate it.

So blong...