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The OLPC and Java

Posted by cayhorstmann on December 31, 2007 at 9:28 AM PST

/>I got an href="">OLPC for the holiday season. No, it wasn't for
the Horstmann twins—after all, it is one laptop per
, so the child must be myself. I got it through the “give
one, get one program”. For $400, I got mine and a much more deserving
kid somewhere out there got one as well. (Hurry if you want to get
yours—the program ends today.)

width="88" height="115" />Twelve
years ago, in Chapter 1 of the first edition of Core Java, Gary Cornell and
myself wrote this in the section entitled “Common Misperceptions about

With Java, I can replace my computer with a $500 “Internet

Some people are betting big that this is going to happen. We believe it
is pretty absurd to think that people are going to give up a powerful and
convenient desktop for a limited machine with no local storage...We can
envision an Internet appliance as a portable adjunct to a desktop. Provided
the price is right, wouldn’t you rather have an Internet enabled
telephone with a small screen to read your e-mail or see the news. Because
the Java kernel is so small, Java is the obvious choice for such a
telephone or other internet “appliance.”

/>So, now I have my $200 internet
appliance. It works like a charm. I can browse the web and read my email. The
keyboard is not great, but it is spillproof, which is just the thing when
reading the news while the Horstmann twins are up to no good. Here is what I
love about the OLPC:

  • The price. It's a steal at $200.
  • The form factor. It is small (but not too small) and rugged.
  • The screen. It morphs from a standard backlit color screen into a
    grayscale screen that can be read in bright sunlight—very
  • The silence. There is no fan and no whirring hard disk.
  • The openness. I don't have an epic power struggle against a
    manufacturer who cares more about “digital rights
    limitations” than my ability to use the device.

But Gary and myself were wrong in one teensy detail. The internet
appliance is not Java-powered. The OLPC uses Linux, and the browser is
Firefox, converted to the kid-friendly “Sugar” environment.

I am not too thrilled about that part. I'd love to put more software onto
the OLPC, but not if it means doing it in C++ and some goofball X11 window
manager. I am glad that other people don't feel as squeamish about these
things as I do, but it made me think about the role of Java in this new class
of devices.

I really believe that the OLPC, the href="">Asus Eee, and the href="">Everex gPC, are the
forerunners of a new category of devices that are truly useful and important.
What would it take for Java to be an essential part of these devices?

First off, these are not crippled ME devices. I ran Java SE apps on the
OLPC (see below for details), and the performance was ok for JEdit and the
Violet UML editor. I didn't try Netbeans :-)

So, why didn't the OLPC folks put Java on the machine? A major reason is
surely that Java was not open source software when the OLPC was designed.

Then there is the issue of SE bloat. Or maybe not. I thought about what
parts of SE one could place into separate extension libraries. There is
RMI/CORBA. And the sound stuff that very few people use because it isn't very
good. What else? Maybe SQL, web services, scripting, NIO? Beyond that, I
don't think one can drop entire packages. Some crypto is needed by platform
security. Some XML is used by logging and preferences. Last Java One, I heard
some people say that they were looking into this issue, and I am curious what
they found. My hunch is that there may be a smallish core for console
applications, but as soon as you let in Swing, you are probably at 2/3 of

Anyway, there has been this huge effort to make Java play nicely with
Vista's throbbing buttons. Maybe that's yesterday's battle. The OLPC shows
quite starkly what you can do for $200 if you dispense with those throbbing
buttons and instead give people something more useful for a specific
task—such as browsing the web around the house and in the garden. I
once read that when electric motors were first sold, they were expensive
high-tech equipment. People would buy one motor that could be attached to
various devices. Maybe one day people will chuckle when they hear about the
personal computer era when we bought one computer to run all sorts of
programs on a single device.

This appendix contains the gory details—skip it if you don't have an

To install Java, go to a non-XO machine and visit href="">

Download "Linux RPM (self-extracting file)". Use scp or a USB
stick to move to the XO. Then ssh into the root account of the XO, and run

chmod a+x jre-6u3-linux-i586-rpm.bin 

(The exact name may differ.)

By the way, here is the result of running df before

mtd0 1048576 346408 702168 34% /

and after

mtd0 1048576 428820 619756 41% /

On another computer, use ssh -X to get a shell on the XO. (If
you use Cygwin, be sure to have X11 installed.) Try running a Web Start


If you get an error message such as

java.lang.UnsatisfiedLinkError: /usr/java/jre1.6.0_03/lib/i386/ cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory

then run

yum install compat-libstdc++-33

You should now be able run Java applications and have them show up on your
other computer.

Unfortunately, on the XO itself, the Matchbox window manager seriously
breaks Java applications. JEdit shows up, but the main window is too small
and the menus and dialogs are at the wrong places. Violet doesn't seem to
work at all. This will presumably get worked on in the future.

I then tried to get the Java Plug-in working in the usual way:

cd /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins/
ln -s /usr/java/jre1.6.0_03/plugin/i386/ns7/

Unfortunately, the plug-in didn't show up when visiting

I got these errors in
/home/olpc/.sugar/default/logs/org.laptop.WebActivity?-1.log LoadPlugin: failed to initialize shared library [ cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory]
LoadPlugin: failed to initialize shared library [ cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory]
LoadPlugin: failed to initialize shared library /usr/java/jre1.6.0_03/plugin/i386/ns7/ [/usr/java/jre1.6.0_03/plugin/i386/ns7/ undefined symbol: _ZTVN10__cxxabiv121__vmi_class_type_infoE]

I got rid of the first two error messages by making symlinks
/usr/lib/ -> and
/usr/lib/ ->

But the third message persisted. Apparently, I am href="">not
the only onewith this problem, but I could not find a solution. (Setting
JAVA_HOME in /etc/profile didn't help.)

Just to make it very clear—do not buy an OLPC today to run
Java applications. My experiment demonstrates that the machine has sufficient
power to do so, but the software needs work.

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