The Tragedy of One Laptop Per Child

Dec 30, 2009

It didn't come as much as a surprise, but the good folks working on the One Laptop Per Child Project announced that the that the OLPC XO-2 concept had been shelved and in what appears to be bowing to the hype of tablet form factors, they've announced the new XO-3. Yawn. Feels like we've been here before and you know why? It's because we have.

Like the mythical predecessors that came before it, the new device is said to have an 8.5 x 11 inch touch screen made by Pixel Qi with an indoor/outdoor display, use inductive charging (like the Palm Pre), will be waterproof and cost no more than $100. Of course, you can't buy or order one as they're targeting 2012 for the ship date. I've been asked by a few folks how the OLPC project could manage this with their current specifications and the answer is simple: they won't be able to. In the meantime, some other interim device based on the original model, with slightly more functional specs is to be released. This is another case of more time and money being wasted on a dubious and unobtainable dream.

I've talked in the past about why this program is not a good idea but forget that for a moment. Let's assume we all agree that education in emerging markets is critical. We know that while there's no silver bullet to cure the ills of society, education comes pretty close. Today, that means education with the ability to be part of the digital community. This project is not the answer.

Look at the issues related to the notion of the $100 laptop (which ended up costing a lot more than a $100 and will continue to do so) such as who will program them? How will they be repaired? What's the courseware and curriculum? Now listen to the answers (mostly, the kids will do it all) and you realize there's a real problem as a good deal of this intended market is illiterate. As this project continues to fail, those countries that have gambled and invested in it do not have the money and resources for a "do over". While there's been a lot of flaming about those who are bringing up objections to the project, this is something that's too important to get wrong and it's time to start thinking elsewhere and thinking in a different way how to solve this problem.

It's not clear to me that there's one correct approach to the problem, but it does seem like the one approach that got all the attention and the buzz had the most margin for error and little chance for success. At the same time, there needs to be a re-think on the degree of priority of computers in emerging markets. One of the most talked about features of the first OLPC prototypes were the hand cranks to power them. Did no one ever consider that in places where computers need to be cranked to powered there might be more pressing issues than getting on the internet and using Twitter? Such as; Electricity? Medicine? Clean water?

While a noble concept in the ideal, it's time to call the OLPC project and it's all gimmicks, odd promotions (such as the “Give One, Get One”, where US citizens could "buy" an OLPC at double the cost, with the idea that the other one would be given away. It was a failed program two years running and mercifully not repeated this year) what it is, a failure. Let's get companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Intel, IBM, HP and Google among others to tackle the issue of global literacy in the digital age as a product they must all share the burden in and reap the rewards. Education is indeed a silver bullet that can cure much of what ails society, but at the same time focus must be kept on real issues such as clean water, food to eat and elimination of disease. More money spent on a mythical tablet that will likely never see the light of day isn't innovative, it's just tragic.

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