10 Reasons Why Negroponte Should Change OLPC Distribution

1000 olpc

Hello I am Alexandre Van de Sande, an interaction designer currently based in Rio de Janeiro, and in this first article I want to address a fundamental-in my opinion flaw in the OLPC strategy: distribution.

I don't think the One Laptop Per Child as a whole is doing well, there seems to be no government buyers, the production is being constantly postponed and the XO's newest price is around US$200.

But is it really a two hundred dollar laptop that is being sold? At the minimum order of 250,000 computers Nicholas Negroponte is not in the business of selling cheap laptops, but of selling fifty million dollars in untested education reform.

There are of course good reasons for not selling the laptops individually or in the famous buy 2 get 1 scheme: first it's a logistical hell to ship and support. Nicholas Negroponte repeatedly said that half the cost of most laptops were marketing, shipping and support. But most importantly the laptop simply isn't as valuable alone as it's in a group of peers.

It's built up to mesh, to collaborate, to exchange information, to be learned and used within a community of similar laptops. A single laptop when living alone - or worst, when living surrounded by iPhones, Blackberries and Dell machines - becomes simply a cheap toy or an oversized PDA.

But there's a mid ground. It could be sold in radically smaller scale, in 1,000 laptops pack. Then it's not a $200.00 laptop but a $200,000 IT alternative. There are very compelling reasons why it should, maybe even that it must, be delivered that way, and that this decision must be made quick. At least 10 very good reasons:

10. You can't expect the public sector from developing nations to solve anything. Corrupt politicians that expect to get a cut of any multi-million dollar project they vote, slow democracies and short sighted policies: welcome to the third world, Nicholas Negroponte, where the government is part of the problem not the solution.

9. You can't expect presidents from developing nations to keep their promises. Populism is a still alive in South America and Africa as it has always been. It's easy to get any president to pose for photos for the press, specially when they are holding a modern computer that they can promise to give to his people.

But once he on front page, it's over. Populist presidents can see only so far as the next election, and when it comes to invest millions in anything they expect it to be easily understood and remembered to any uneducated voter.

That's why they will prefer to build a unprofitable, incoherent, hand built computer assembly line than to buy any computer from foreign countries. Factories equals Jobs, while sending money to US and Asia spells "evil capitalists".

8. You may expect city councils and municipal powers to take action. Contrary to state and federal governments, in the municipal scale, one enthusiast can make a project happen. City mayors are usually eager to find projects that can put their own city on the map, even if that means doing things nobody has ever done before.

Also, a thousand children and his families can represent five thousand voters, and that does make a difference in the next elections, specially if you promise to expand this one-school project to others when your term is ending. A couple thousand dollars is the just the scale they can afford: around the cost of a bridge, a new road or reforming a school.

7. You certainly can count on non-governmental organizations and non-profits. At this lower price point, it becomes affordable to seek alternative fundings. A NGO can amass such a small fortune with a few important donors, micro-loans, a online money raising or just from venture capitalists with a plan in mind.

6. Expect the eccentric riches. It may be ironic that the first confirmed buyer of the OLPC was Carlos Slim, the Mexican who became richest than Bill Gates, but it's not completely unexpected. Forward thinking billionaires like Slim, Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson or even companies like Google are known to spend huge amounts of money in projects that do not have a direct expectation to be lucrative.

It doesn't really matter if it's some grand plan, philanthropy or simply a way to leave a mark: that's how the new space race is being paid for. Lower the cost of a warm feeling in the heart and you can be certain that every unknown rich will be buying XO laptops for the neighborhood schools they grew up in.

chasm olpc

5. Technology has a life cycle. A lot has changed in recent years but not this: breakthrough products still get in the market through the early adopters, and only then it will slowly take the mainstream.

The early adopters have the kind of personality that make them the perfect OLPC faithful: risk-takers, technology enthusiasts, eager to turn the education system upside down and get rid of old paradigms.

You know where you can find some early adopters? They are working as some liberal school director, as community leader or maybe even in charge of some risky but mildly funded government project. Guess where you can't find any: in the state department that is in charge of allotting billions of taxpayers dollars into a already tight education budget.

4. Let others make the trial and error for you. There isn't much criticism on the Children's Machine itself. But there is a lot in almost everything else. The contructivism, the UI, the curriculum, the "third world only" policy, even the concept of giving one laptop to every child has been scrutinized, and it's at least arrogant to suppose anyone really knows what's the ONE best solution for every community.

If the XO is a true open tool the process should be open also. Let the laptop be used in all countries, every kind of community, to be lent in libraries, given at random, sold by microfinance institutes, exchanged for good grades. The best practices will emerge, and the whole process will evolve.

3. The thousand-laptop number is big enough to create a critical mass in any community. In a school or community where are all one's friends are using a laptop then it's more probable that he will use the laptop as it was designed.

That is, he will learn Sugar from his peers, and will be able to use the native mesh network to play with the already installed softwares for playing music, writing collaboratively and share animations in Squeak. Give one XO to a single user in and in no time he will learn to wipe it clean, install an illegal copy of Windows 2000 and Office.

His experience of the whole OLPC program will be of a crappy processor running a pirated copy of an unsupported, insecure OS, with software that was designed less for students than for accountants. That's what we call second class online citizens.

2. Selling at a couple hundred thousands, the logistics are kept to minimal. No marketing is necessary as the kind of customer that buys such technology en masse is already aware of the OLPC program. Transport and shipping will be reduced to sending one container from Taiwan to somewhere in the world.

From that point the distribution to children, infrastructure and deployment rely in the hands of the clients - since they are the one with a plan. Support can be as simple as an laptop replacement - expect 5% of laptops to fail? Then build 1050 and wait.

OLPC XO price

1. Finally: the laptop technology is hot. But won't be hot forever. Remember how revolutionary was the iPhone when introduced? Today full screen phones are being announced every wee, zooming with two fingers became a cliché and even one tap scrolling - arguably the coolest feature - can be done on common softwares. It's a miracle that a product announced in early 2005 still gets media attention and woes it's users but how much longer can it keep pace?

Once flash-based laptops are commonplace, once the screen technology gets to the market and when mesh networking becomes more common, the XO will not stand out so much. And when other multipurpose computers and cell phones approach the sub $200 mark people will start opting for more conventional methods for their cheap laptop alternative.

It doesn't needs anyone to be better in all categories like low power consumption, mesh repeating while off or 1-second sleep state switch. You can even argue that the XO was not the designed to be top of the line.

But state decision makers don't usually understand that much about technology anyway, all you need to tell them is that it's cheaper, it's black and that it runs exactly like every computer he always used. And the green dream machine is gone.

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I'm delighted by your post.

You hit a nail here, if only OLPC crew could hear this.


Excellent, excellent post.
Logical, coherent, on-message, sensible, practical.
One hopes that the folks at laptop.org read this one.

Excelent , someone must says the truth .
5O million US$ is the core business, laptops are the road map to do it.

One of the best posts in this site. I may not agree with some of the premises but the overall reasoning is brilliant.
Parabems, Alexandre!

exactly what i experienced during last 3 months in Korea, one of the best IT powered nations of the world.

i can't agree any more...

Very good post. However, I miss one counter argument.

If the OLPC sets up local schools against the ministery of education, the ensuing turf war might be ugly.

What if the ministery will make sure the curriculum will change in such a way that the XO becomes a liability?


Winter: I am not sure I understoo dyour counter argument but I do believe that in the end the laptop should be a tool not attached to any curriculum or method. As I said, every small project should come with their way of using the machine, and that would be a big sandbox test for when the ministery of education comes later in the game.

Also in most countries, the official government curriculum is flexible enough so that schools can innovate a bit (like the many piaget style schools in the world) but still be withnin the official boundaries. So there is no need to be a turf war.

My argument was directed at the problem of turf wars between the state education ministry and local authorities.

If a major would introduce laptops that affect education, the the ministry might feel they step onto their turf. The ministry could retaliate by making sure the laptops will NOT fit in the curriculum or take other steps to make the project fail.

I understood that the OLPC was directed to the highest level exactly to prevent such turf wars.



"I understood that the OLPC was directed to the highest level exactly to prevent such turf wars"

I assume that is one reason why Negroponte is speaking first of all the heads of state. If he wins them over then they can give orders to their ministries of education.

I fully agree with your arguments in case of English and Spanish speeking countries, but what's in case of countries like Nepal where no Computer content is available?
In this case all the translation work must be done by few people.
Rainer Fischer

There are some olpc volunteers in Korea (South).

As one of them, I have met a few high officers working in the ministry of education of Korea, very open minded people and in charge of ''Digital Textbook'' and ''IT infrastructure of the education system in Korea''.

The ministry of education already set plans to deploy laptop computers for elementary to high school students, about 10 million students in that age spectrum, and already distributed about 1,000 laptops to some test schools, each laptop pricing about US$1,500 (LG C1 tablet laptop with touch screen) with wired and Mobile WiMAX (WiBro) internet connection service.

As you know, in Korea, all schools (and even every home) are connected to the web with very high speed of about 100 Mbps, and there are desktop computers in every school, at least one for every 5 students.

Now...let's see.

1. there already are high speed web connection in the entire nation

2. MOE already has plans for digital text book, laptop for every student (7 yrs old to 18 yrs).

3. officers in MOE are highly interested in OLPC


4. teachers, school administrators, local educational authorities, and MOE are very very very hesitant to deploy OLPC, even testing them.

5. the olpc foundation has no interest in Korea (South), because it's to developed....is it true?

IMHO, extruding so called developed nations is quite a mistake. It's the biggest problem.

the second is that even developed nations hesitate to deploy XO laptops.

I think the only solution for the second (those obstacles in the case of Korea) is democracy (or market).

let market solve the problem.

the olpc foundation said they need no intermediary dealers such as retail shops for XO laptops. then how about the government? isn't it an intermediary dealer?

By letting market do its role, North Korea (so called a developing nation) also be benefited from South Korea (maybe developed nation).

I believe that this writer and several of the commentators have misunderstood the intent of the OLPC project. They have certainly misunderstood the news items about countries interested in the laptop. There are laptop prototypes today in Argentina, Peru, Brazil, and Nigeria. These countries have said that they want to buy production models for their schools, as have Uruguay, Libya, Rwanda, and Thailand. The minimum order is now a quarter million units. Quanta, the manufacturer, gave a price quote of $176 each for five million units not long ago, now $188 with currency and material prices fluctuations.

There are other errors of substance in this article, such as the assertion of a "Third-World only" policy. OLPC has plainly stated that it is in discussions with 20 US states.

As to letting others pave the way, OLPC is the pioneer paving the way. For all the complaining about the price of the XO, it's still cheaper than printed textbooks, and half the price of the supposedly competing Intel Classmate.

And they are taking only one dollar profit per unit. So if somebody else can come along and match both their price and technology, OLPC can cheerfully let them, and put more of its attention on Free Software, Free Textbooks, and Free Content.

I'm sorry, I see no brilliant reasoning here, just the usual ignorant armchair analysis typical of naysayers.

"I'm sorry, I see no brilliant reasoning here, just the usual ignorant armchair analysis typical of naysayers."

However, by writing all these ignorant things, we got someone in the know irritated enough to supply us the information we ourselves couldn't find.

Thus, we now are less ignorant than we were. Brilliant, isn't it?


I think Alexandre Van Sande's suggestion is brilliant. And my thoughts on the matter have nothing to do with whether there are or are not currently any buyers signed on for lots of 250,000. Sales of smaller lots will allow innovative practices to emerge in multiple contexts. Large scale are more likely to result in large scale bureaucratic problems.

For example, looking at the U.S. experience, yes, there is a state-wide laptop program in Maine, but that emerged only after a number of schools and districts in Maine had first experimented with pilot programs. It's not good policy to expect successful large-scale implementation without opportunities to experiment with smaller scale implementation first.

(I've been in India for the past two weeks; sorry for my prolonged absence!)

I've been banging my head against this problem since I started looking at the OLPC -- 1 million laptops is just too many, even 250k is a big chunk. One thing I've suggested at various times and in various papers is a network strategy wherein communities within a country (say, varied schools), and/or countries within a region, ideally sharing a common language group together to purchase a set of OLPCs. The formation of the group requires a lot of effort which demonstrates long-term potential and dedication, and the size of the group provides an instantaneous peer network and team to produce/find/share content. All the while, it spreads out the risk and cost of the new implementation. This strategy could work great in any semi-independent school system; and could event take advantage of the 250k minimum with enough schools working together... If OLPC will sign non-government deals, or deals with multiple actors, of course.

This laptop is certainly cheaper than cell phone and it can do a lot more too, especially for students. Even adult like me who is not a computer geek will find the reasonably price laptop attractive. Currently I use not more than 20 percent of the capability offered by my ibm laptop.

In other words the market is more than just for school going children. It could also be for students at universities who need a laptop for word processing and spreadsheet.

I also think that the shorter the life cycle of the pc technology the better for consumers to invest in the cheapest machine. It will still connect you to the internet.

Promotions and marketing of the product is certainly the key to its success. Hopefully it could find sponsors to help in the campaign.

Great posting. Thank you for this posting.
We are still looking at the other countries. What about our poor children here that can not afford a computer either, due to parents layoff and job loss? We need to stop for a minute and look at our own country before giving everything to other countries.

Thanks for this suggestions Alexandre, in fact this distribution model is more like that of the Classmate. And whatever you think of the classmate machine, it is being deployed into schools in Nigeria this month for exactly the reason you suggest; you can buy them by the 1000. The classmates are being bought by ngo's who are serving schools in their area with them. 16000 are due to be deployed to schools by December this year. Whereas the olpc has not got past the pilot school yet.

In other words the market is more than just for school going children. It could also be for students at universities who need a laptop for word processing and spreadsheet.
- Posted by: Mohd Shah on September 25, 2007

Exactly - I'm buying one for a high-school student who stepped on her laptop and broke the screen. This is built to be treated like that. This will be used as a back-up/note taking pc to supplement a desktop pc so the battery life/memory upgrades/internet availability is not a concern. I want to know what comes in the box.

I know OLPC doesn't intend for the tool to be used this way but it does subsidize their program.