Today's Wall Street Journal front page has long article on One Laptop Per Child: A Little Laptop With Big Ambitions. In it, Steve Stecklow takes the position that a computer for the poor was stomped by tech giants:I'd like to take the position that if OLPC is getting stomped (and I don't think its being "stomped" at all), its due to its own foolishness and arrogance, as much or more than any underhanded competition from Intel or Microsoft.
OLPC Sales Plan Mistakes
First off, when Nicholas Negroponte launched One Laptop Per Child, he didn't call it OLPC. He referred to his idea as the "$100 laptop", forever shifting the focus from a Constructionist educational revolution to low-cost computing. While it was a marketing masterpiece, and quickly grabbed the world's attention and imagination, Negroponte created his own blowback - low-priced laptop competition.
Then, Negroponte refused to have XO laptop pilot projects where Ministers of Education could test one-to-one computing against traditional learning methods. In fact, Negroponte called pilots "ridiculous" and in today's WSJ article he is still resisting open competition between computers:
At a meeting this month in Cambridge, Mass., with representatives of Macedonia's government, Mr. Negroponte balked at authorizing a pilot project there after learning that officials also were considering testing the Classmate. He told them he didn't want to participate in a "bake-off."Yet, when the XO laptop was compared with the Classmate PC in a Uruguayan "bake off", it was OLPC receiving a 100,000 laptop order, not Intel.
Missing: Training, Support & Maintenance
When any large organization contemplates buying technology, they should perform a Total Cost of Ownership calculation to make sure they take into account non-hardware costs like training, maintenance and support, which usually dwarf the initial hardware and software investment.
Yet what does OLPC say about training, support, or maintenance?
- Training: Negroponte says teacher training isn't needed, the children will learn themselves and train the teachers with a cost effective violin, the Constructionist XO laptop.
- Support: Let's have Negroponte answer the question Ministers ask first:
Mr. Negroponte said some initial tech support would be provided by Brightstar Corp., a Miami-based wireless equipment distributor. Just who would provide support a few years from now, he said, was "a frightening question." The students, he said, will need "to do as much maintenance as possible."
- Maintenance: Since Mary Lou Jepsen designed a computer that "five-year-old kids in Nigeria can screw it together" who needs maintenance? Kids will keep a million-unit Humpty Dumpty from happening by using the view source key
Before it sounds like OLPC is stomping itself to irrelevance, do note it has the resources to turn the program around and become a roaring success in implementation as well as computer design and philanthropic marketing.
From the WSJ article, we find One Laptop Per Child is a multi-million dollar organization:
Robert Fadel, its director of finance and operations, says the nonprofit has enough funding to last years. Its dozen corporate benefactors this year contributed $16.5 million, and it will be using $1 from each computer sold to cover administrative costs.From the recent G1G1 sales extenstion we learn that OLPC is awash in cash donations, averaging $2 million dollars per day, in addition to the numbers above. Give One Get One also shows that OLPC has huge public support.
Last year, it took in $7.6 million in revenue, mainly from donors, and its budget this year is about $9.5 million. As of September, it had $8.7 million in cash on hand, an internal document indicates.
Just look at what HitWise says about Internet traffic during G1G1:
Last week, there were more than two and a half times more US Internet searches for "one laptop per child" than for "laptop". It was the top search term that included the word "laptop" last week though it still trailed the higher volume search term "laptops".Now with such intense public support, One Laptop Per Child could make a transformation from a laptop project to a education project with a few simple, yet radical changes.
To put this into further context, there were more searches for "one laptop per child" than for "paris hilton" or "george clooney" but fewer than for "britney spears".
A Successful OLPC Model
Imagine this global yet local Give One Get One XO laptop distribution organization: Anyone, anywhere can buy an XO laptop for $200 from the Quanta-supplied, eBay administered, OLPC sales program. Groups could buy XO laptops in 100+ lots for less. As sales increased, laptop prices would decrease.
The One Laptop Per Child Foundation, funded by XO technology royalties would have two roles:
- Designing the XO-2 laptop, with whatever components work the best to deliver low-cost, high-performance computers in the harsh developing world environment.
- Propagating and promoting local XO user groups who are empowered with official OLPC lesson plans, maintenance guides, and training modules.
Those roles would be taken by the most committed local educational stakeholders, those that can and do influence Presidents of countries and Ministers of Education: parents of school-aged children.
In addition, this plan can include other educational organizations. As Lylah points out in the comments, OLPC has overlooked the fact that most governments care less for their poor than targeted non-profit organizations. Last but not least, local organizations, be they formal nonprofits or informal user groups, could develop and provide ongoing XO laptop training, support, and maintenance, OLPC's massive implementation gap to date.
The winners: all children
The losers: only egos