In January 2005, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Nicholas Negroponte announced the One Laptop Per Child project, with the stated goal of giving every poor child in the world a “rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.”
Last week OLPC laid off half of its staff. Sales of its XO Laptop to developing nations are far, far below initial projections in the millions; in the third quarter of 2008 it shipped a mere 130,000 units, a trivial 2.3% of the world’s low-cost, small-screen “netbook” laptops. Meanwhile, the income from their 2008 “Give One Get One Free” drive dropped 93% from 2007. What went wrong? Any number of things, including bad timing, production delays, poor management, and superior competition. But if you ask me – and I feel bad writing this, given all the hard work and good intentions that went into One Laptop Per Child – its fundamental problems are twofold:
The best thing about the XO is its case: the pebbled exterior, built-in handle, and dust/water resistance (which I didn’t test) are stylish and useful. The problems begin when you open it up. It’s slow. On occasion the cursor freezes or submarines. The screen and keyboard are tiny even for a netbook. Even its vaunted connectivity is badly flawed: my XO completely failed to connect to encrypted Wi-Fi networks that worked with both my other laptops. When you do connect, its Web browser fails to show paragraph breaks on Wikipedia pages, making the world’s greatest collection of free information hard to read – on a laptop allegedly designed for education!
The XO’s Sugar interface, a “learning platform that reinvents how computers are used for education”, appears to have been designed by a team of ivory-tower PhDs and misanthropic techies sealed off from the real world since birth. For instance, type “help” into the search box that appears on top of the screen, and – nothing happens. Click on the help “Activity”, and instead of anything useful and/or context-sensitive, you get a virtual brochure that begins with pages of PR bumph extolling the greatness of OLPC and Sugar.
I played with my XO for some time, trying to imagine myself as an 8-year-old in a poor country. I like to think I’m more qualified to do this than most – I write novels for a living, and have travelled through dozens of developing nations – and I was thoroughly underwhelmed. At its best Sugar was a collection of badly executed good ideas. And I can’t help but wonder: at what point did teaching children an interface fundamentally different from the windowing UI used by all other computers seem like a good idea to anyone?
Meanwhile, the rest of the world has already lapped them. My Acer Aspire One netbook is faster, has more memory, a better screen and keyboard, connects to encrypted Wi-Fi networks, renders Wikipedia correctly, and has a user-friendly interface with many useful applications. There’s no comparison: it’s miles better, for a comparable price. As far as I can tell, the OLPC team so wanted to be revolutionaries that they insisted on reinventing everything at once, and as a result, failed everywhere. (Although to be fair they did inadvertently spur the growth of the netbook market that has since entirely overtaken them.)
But that hardly even matters, because the whole idea of distributing laptops to poor children was completely misguided to begin with. Did the OLPC braintrust think they were bringing modern technology to the Third World? They were years too late; it’s already there, in the form of the not-so-humble-any-more cell phone. Tiny villages in Africa have GSM coverage and cell-phone stalls run by local entrepeneurs. You can bank by phone from the Colombian jungle, or get market prices texted to you while fishing off the Indian coast. Mobile phones have permeated the developing world to such an amazing degree that it makes no sense to try and reproduce that existing cultural and technical infrastructure from scratch.
What Negroponte & co. should have done was One Smartphone Per Child; a smartphone is not much different from a netbook that can connect to both cell networks and Wi-Fi, and has GPS…and that you can also use as, well, a phone. But alas, OLPC suffered from a failure of imagination from the very beginning. I hate to say it, but despite all its PR glory and good intentions, it was never more than a bad implementation of a bad idea, and its eventual failure was all but inevitable.
(UPDATE: OLPC News responds.)