The XO Files: I Want To Believe
To (finally) close up my "I want to believe" series on how things went wrong, and how things could go very right with the OLPC dream, let me offer some resolutions for the Foundation to consider for 2009.
I will decide on a mission statement
That is, "I will accept that OLPC is and has always been a laptop project, not an education project". And that's OK, if presented as such. The world needs a laptop like the XO, and it can still help improve education. But let's agree that the XO is a laptop and not an education miracle, and treat it as such - a wonderfully well-designed and flexible tool that can be used in many contexts in international development projects and in more quotidian ways as well. This opens up more "markets" for the XO, widens the potential scope, and creates a much larger and diverse user-base who can benefit from and contribute back to the ongoing development of the XO.
I will stop overreaching
Nicholas Negroponte, to extend the X-Files metaphor, is a Fox Mulder, and needs to find a Scully to temper his theories. The "refocusing" he discusses sells the achievements OLPC has made short and sets up a new round of unreachable goals:
- Development of Generation 2.0
- A no-cost connectivity program
- A million digital books
- Passing on the development of the Sugar Operating System to the community.
Christoph has already responded to these in the forums; my favorite is his response to the no-cost connectivity: ""no-cost". HAHAHA,"
But how about stopping with the distraction of the "Next Generation" product, add some incremental changes to the current system, and continue the work of lowering its price point and increasing the adoption of it? Further - a million ebooks, as Christoph also points out, is already the mission of existing projects. If you want to cling to the education mission statement, what about focusing on educational content for the XO instead? This supports the adoption rate by lowering the bar, and is closer to the core (but possibly forgotten and never really true) "education project" goals.
In 2009, OLPC should refocus, realizing that their strategy for improving education is to create the best laptop tool for education . OLPC should seek to partner with anybody and everybody to help get the XO in the hands of educators (and everybody else, I posit).
It's time to let go of the "my way or the highway" style of management and find innovative ways to get the XOs into the hands of children - through education ministries, on-the-ground, socially responsible vendors (think Grameen's Village Phone), international development efforts, and direct, simple sales. Which brings us to the next resolution.
I will sell the XO laptop commercially
So G1G1 didn't go so well this year, coming in at a mere 7% of last year's G1G1 even though it opened up the purchasing to more of the world and went through Amazon. While many blame the management, we also have to remember that there's a global financial slowdown impacting all sectors, and buying a $200 laptop for $400 isn't the easiest purchase to make. We can squarely blame the management of OLPC for their apparent misuse of the Give One side of the purchase for operations money instead of laptop donations (otherwise why would the 7% sales compared with last year matter so much as to cause so many layoffs and refocusing? I welcome anyone to figure out this math puzzle).
I strongly believe that the technology behind the XO is, as Wayan likes to put it, "clock-stopping hot." It's valuable. It's the best travel laptop on the market. Make a new form factor for it, or at least an adultish color scheme, optionally bump up the specs a slight bit, ship it with Ubuntu or pure-RH boot/install USB sticks, and market it to international travelers, hikers (with an extra solar panel charging kit!), parents, kitchen warriors (it makes a great Internet/epicurious.com station in the kitchen), geeks (probably almost saturated market there), and people who just want a reliable, sturdy, and lightweight laptop/netbook.
Drop the Give-one part and sell the damned thing for a modest profit that OLPC can honestly use for operating expenses. Make a for-profit spin-off that donates profits back to the non-profit foundation - find a way, everyone wants one, and your window for getting in to the 4PC netbook market that you almost single-handedly created is closing. Also, sell or license schwag and accessories. There's so much brand potential behind the XO to make a bit of money to support the Foundation that it's ridiculous not to capitalize on at least some chunk of that. At the very least, aggressively promote the licensing of the technology - especially the screen - to other netbook manufacturers and make some dough off of that, while at the same time spreading the technology to the field. If the end goal is to get low-cost, rugged laptops to the children of the world, one way is just to have many low-cost, competing options that governments and development workers can use in their projects.
I will listen to the community
OLPC has done a passable job with creating and
abusingworking with its community, but it rarely listened to that community, as Yama Ploskonka has gone into with greater detail. It's time to change that, and make sure that OLPC at least listens and responds to the community at large. Some issues of the community may be pet peeves that do not impact (or are costly distractions) to getting a cheap laptop available to support international development and education, but some ideas might lead to cost savings, new opportunities, or even faster and also better software development cycles, as gregdek suggests.