The much hyped One Laptop per Child project makes me sad. I ordered one of these promising, kid-friendly portable computers last November, during the very first week it became available for domestic customers under its foundation’s “Give One, Get One” program. For US$400, not only would I get an XO Laptop, but I’d also be be effectively buying one for a needy child in a developing nation.

But my XO never arrived. I waited and waited, and it never arrived. And then it became apparent to me that good intentions and great publicity don’t necessarily equal great customer service. When I went looking for my laptop, I discovered that the OLPC foundation’s ability to track, update and ship my laptop to me is barely better than that of a home mail order business. Last I heard from them, they assured me I would get mine “delivered in 45 to 60 days.”

Now I’ve lost my enthusiasm for the laptop altogether, especially given the generally poor reviews that the device’s operating system and interface have garnered. So I called them this week to cancel the part of my order that would buy a laptop for me — I didn’t have the heart to ask for a refund on the half that was ostensibly destined for some poor Third World child. Even that, they couldn’t get right; the operator on the phone could only refund an unspecified “fair market value” price, for some obscure reason. It felt like bureaucracy, to me. Sadly.

  1. Sorry for your horrible luck. Many of my peers here in DC have received them right on schedule. They’re quite innovative machines and ought to be fairly promising in places where electricity and internet are hard to come by.

    You’re right that the OLPC team is tiny and they’ve probably taken on a project a little too ambitious…but I just hope to point out that it has helped a lot of people and that they have fulfilled their obligations with many.

    If you ever do get to play with one I’d be anxious to hear your (always very clear and cogent) analysis of its interface.

    We’ll also miss you at SXSW this year!

  2. I never understood the OLPC company. Most education experts agree that the LAST thing any child needs is a computer (or any screen media).

  3. That’s a real shame. If you’d still like to have a play with the OLPC’s OS, it’s pretty easy to get up and running using VMWare. Assuming you have some sort of VMWare installed (I’ve got Fusion on the Mac), simply download a virtual machine image from here.

    (I’d recommend as it’s the newest)
    Unzip, double-click on the resulting VMX and you’re good to go.

  4. Khoi,

    While I’m staunchly socially liberal it’s stories such as this that make me praise the free market’s ability to make inefficient, bureaucratic, customer-insensitive operations “go away”.

    Imagine US Gov ( much more bureaucratic than OLPC by whole solar masses ) managing health care – or any resource intensive operation outside of the military ( and look at their efficiency rates there!)!

    And yes, ATX will sorely miss you this year at SXSW. Without you there anti-grid anarchy may break out! 😉

    @manxstef: Great tip! I can’t wait to test this in fusion!



    { Although the “collective trust” of Smith’s parlance and other government sanctions for corporate personhood and evil men like Harry Lime make it harder for the invisible hand to work, so I’m no free-marketeer, either }

  5. We installed the OLPC Sugar emulator (via VMWare) here at Behavior and laughed our asses at it for about 20 minutes. It really is a shining testament to the disastrous effects of theory-driven- and designer-driven-design. You’re not missing much, but if you need to satisfy you curiosity and/or have a few lulz you should try it.

  6. Actually, the problem was with some for-profit companies that donated their services. There’s no reason to assume that if the OLPC project had just done the logistics themselves, it would have gone better, but I can’t really see this as any sort of proof that the free-market model works better.

    Furthermore, look at the OLPC itself. It’s a perfect collection of good technology that anybody could have done five or ten years ago (for more money, of course) if they’d had that as their goal. But they didn’t do it, because the free market tends to encourage “the same, only better,” rather than outside-of-the-box thinking.

    So the OLPC incorporates several key new technologies that no other device has – the transflective display and wireless mesh routing being the two I particularly admire. And unlike any laptop I’ve ever owned, when the backlight fails (and it will!), you can replace it – it’s removable. The whole thing is intended to be fixed when it breaks, instead of throwing it out and buying a new one.

    Why didn’t the free market bring us this kind of laptop? Because throw-away laptops mean full revenue on repurchase, rather than much less revenue on replacement parts. Unfortunately, they also mean more garbage in electronic garbage dumps.

    I’m sorry that you didn’t have the patience to wait for this machine – I think it’s worth the wait. I don’t have mine yet either, but there’s no way I’m canceling my order.

  7. “But they didn’t do it, because the free market tends to encourage “the same, only better,” rather than outside-of-the-box thinking.”

    What about the iPhone? That’s innovative and made by a multinational corporation, their shipping works properly too.

  8. Ask for all your money back. If they haven’t shipped “Get One” to you what makes you think they shipped the “Give One” part?

    How can people be so clueless when confronted with such obvious incompetence

  9. they called it olpc. too sad they didnt do much of the math they put in their brand name.


  10. @ Mr. Lemon,

    It is interesting that the onus is on Vinh to “have patience,” and not on OLPC to deliver the machine he paid good money for.

    Yes, OLPC may have noble intentions, and yes they may have bitten off more than they can chew, but that is OLPC’s problem and nobody else’s. Even though OLPC promises something amazing, you cannot fault consumers when OLPC fails to deliver (for whatever reason).

    Also, this brings into question OLPC’s ability to get one of their machines into the hands of a 3rd world child, when they are struggling in countries with functioning postal and delivery services.

    I wish OLPC the best, and it saddens me to hear stories like this, but they need to get their act together if they hope to survive against the monolithic system builders.

  11. OLPC does not need to survive against the “monolithic system builders”

    they just need to show it’s possible to create a tiny, cheap , easily replaceable computer for harsh environment (africa, india) for education.

    it’s a hard task.

    you are correct, children in africa for example does not need a computer. they need EVERYTHING you have! _everything_ : the food, water, the fridge, the tv, the computer, the internet, the soft chair, the nice carpet, the great furniture, the clean street, the nice government , helpful people, the teachers you had and so on

    they need _everything_ and yeah it’s OUR and THEIRS world a tiny computer for education is not simply needed but truly useful !

    do you think it’s easy to keep huge books everywhere in every school in the world ? networks and computer can be an asset to spread texts. it can also be a great tool to learn algebra and readings. every people need that, even in a desert.

    the goal of the olpc was not to be simply a tiny cheap computer but to be a computer which could work and useable in isolated village without computers shops, engineers,

    where sand or humidity can break even the nicer Vaio or Mac or whatever army-hardened laptop,

    where complex software can break and need expert, the olpc tried to use a _very_ simple and straightforward linux without all the commodities but complexities and heavy requirements of modern interfaces

    the goal was to create a computer for children where no computer could be useable.

    you see , it had nothing to do with intel goal, with eee pc of asus of macbook or innovation or iphone or capitalism or communism or whatever ism.

    innovation was a necessity,not the goal. A necessity to create a device able to resist children in very remote place,

  12. I bought into the Give One Get One program the first day it was available. While I had serious, long-standing doubts about the project, I hoped I was wrong and if I was that some third-world kid would benefit.

    I wasn’t wrong. It’s really a total POS. I feel sorry for the kids who are getting these, they’d have been far better off with a bunch Nintendo DSs.

  13. I am an educator, and many colleagues of mine asked me about this OLPC program, especially the seemingly cheap way to get a PC for their own children at home. “Does it run OS X? Or XP?”

    They had no clue.

    The idea behind the project, to empower students regardless of their current economic situation, I think is a noble one. In the US, we struggle to give our students OLPC, with the laptop being a MacBook or a Dell. But we know that so many powerful learning opportunities are stalled when access to the technology isn’t there.

    OLPC was never going to be a perfect solution, but a start to something. In high school, I was programming on an Apple IIGS. It wasn’t “state of the art,” but it was nevertheless a powerful learning tool.

    I’m sorry the program has been met with so much controversy. I have always believed the hearts and focus of the program to be in the best interest of children. Whether your blame incompetence on the parts of the OLPC directorship, or the competition from Microsoft or Intel, it’s too bad more parties couldn’t have joined the effort to make it a stronger one.

    The economy is too often an enemy to education.

  14. lol…guys, guys! I ordered one of these and received it a couple of weeks ago. It’s really great! In spite of all the crabby things some people here have said it’s a real computer with some absolutely great software…fer crying out loud, amongst other things it has a software oscilloscope!…I love it, it has made me very happy! Mind you I’m a full-time programmer and I love mobile computers with a passion.
    The music and drawing programs just made me giggle with delight…can’t wait to hand it over to a kid, if I can bear to give it up.

  15. It disappoints me greatly that someone as influental as you would write off this project because of poor North American customer service.

    Sure, the Buy-one-give-one promotion showed lots of missed marketing potential. People got them late, after the promotion was over, and the others that were inspired when they saw the machines could not participate.

    However, I will judge this program based on whether or not they get them in the hands of kids and what kids do with them. My XO impressed me greatly and I want to see this experiment continue because I want to see kids creating with these things.

  16. How about some patience and understanding of the target market.

    This is really not a machine for us, here in north america. I thought of joining the 1+1 plan and get one to “play” with. When I realized that I don’t really need one I simply donated $400 to OLPC, so two kids will receive a laptop instead of getting one myself. I think this non-profit was probably overwhelmed with the shipping of the first units but that doesn’t mean everything they do is incompetent.

  17. My boss was willing to donate a whole bunch of old PC’s we have in an old forgotten warehouse. I was thinking of installing Ubuntu and donating them to some school.

    I think it is much easier (and greener?) to revamp old computers. I live in Panama, and even in the most outback places kids have an outlet to plug their PC. Just install your favorite Linux distribution and you are set to go.

    I’ve seen older Pentium machines with 14 inch monitors in Panama go for 99.00 dollars. While not exactly a laptop, it helps extend the machines life span.

  18. I had chance to test out the Sugar OS just a little less than a year ago when I started my latest “corporate gig”. To be truthful, it confused the heck out of me at the outset. It was, seemingly, senseless. But then, I stopped looking at the interface and iconography from the perspective of a first-world, highly computer literate adult and started looking at it from the perspective of a child that has never before seen a computer. Then, it all came together and made complete sense. Now I could say a lot of really horrible things about the OLPC project (but that’s only because I’m bitter), but I’ll refrain. Instead, what I’ll say is it’s a good start and a few steps in the right direction. Oh, and as far as “ordering” goes: About 100 or so of my coworkers placed their orders prior to the first-announced deadline. The majority of them have, in fact, received their laptops. A few, though, have not. We even had a list thread in which we mused as to whether or not the orders were being fulfilled alphabetically by last name rather than in queue fashion. Maybe that musing wasn’t so far-fetched 🙂

  19. I agree with Ariel.

    I tried OLPC. I found the interface really difficult to understand and unintuitive. I’m really not sure how it’s being used in classrooms, and if the teachers’ curricula were considered in the design of OLPC.

    I feel like a better alternative program would’ve been to donate used and old laptops or PCs with Linux on them, so when the kids are trained, they could fully integrate with the developed nations. Or maybe a hack mobile phones so that people can use them like computers. I recently visited a developing country, and most of the villagers owned sophisticated mobile phones over computers. So instead of creating another unfamiliar device, why not change the infrastructure of what they’re familiar with using already, and incorporate that into the classrooms.

  20. Khoi,
    I think you’re missing the point of the program. That it even crossed your mind to ask for a refund on the machine that was supposed to be going to a child in a developing world boggles my mind.


  21. Too bad to hear that. I looked seriously at buying one from the program also, to donate and to give one to my nieces. I decided against it, mainly because I thought my nieces might be too young. I guess OLPC may have over-stepped their bounds if they can’t deliver on time. No one likely to complain if they’re a month or two late to schools in Nigeria, but they enter a different arena with different standards when they’re selling to consumers in the U.S.

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