OLPC: Give one, get none

"But as a company selling hardware, the OLPC folks have some growing up to do."

First, let me say I am a big fan of One Laptop Per Child, at least as a concept. Connecting the developing world's children to the Internet in a seamless and low-cost way is a great idea.

Heck, I wouldn't even mind if the XO machines ran Windows, if Microsoft could figure out how to make a version of Windows that runs decently and reliably with minimal hardware and power requirements. (Wait, did I just see a pig fly by my window?)

But as a company selling hardware, the OLPC folks have some growing up to do. I've been listening to a chorus of complaints from people who ordered an XO machine under the "Give one, get one" plan back in November, only to have it not show up two months later. And in most cases, reaching OLPC has been well nigh impossible. Here's one typical tale of woe from H. M.:

I ordered on day one, and they kept saying that that would make me one of the first to get one. They blew the original Christmas goal, then told me that I was scheduled to get one by January 15th. That day's now passed, and I haven't heard from them, and there's no true order-tracking system. And people who ordered after I did got theirs weeks ago.... I'm not angry--if the machines are going to starving kids in Rhodesia, I'm happy--but it's puzzling...

Well, I was able to raise somebody at OLPC. And though the answer isn't satisfying, at least it's an answer. Spokesperson Jackie Lustig says:

"One Laptop per Child apologizes to those donors who have not yet received their XO laptops. Unexpected back-end systems problems resulted in incorrect shipping addresses for 10% of our donors. We had no problems with the other 90% of the donors and they have received their XO laptops and are delighted with them. The Give One Get One donated laptops are already in the hands of children in Mongolia and we are building machines to be shipped soon to Haiti, Cambodia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan.

The incorrect address problems require our customer service representatives to research each issue -- which takes some time. Again, we apologize for the difficulties in getting through to donor services by phone.

We are doing everything we can to work through the problems and to get all donors their XO laptops as soon as possible. We appreciate everyone's patience and support."

Moral of this story: Good intentions don't necessarily equal good management. And maybe it's just me, but I was kind of hoping that a US$100 laptop would really cost US$100, not US$200. At this rate, the XO machine and low-end thin clients are likely to collide before they end up in the hands of most kids.

Oh, and by the way, even though OLPC stopped selling XO machines direct to consumers last month, you can still buy one on eBay. Average selling price seems to be between US$200 and US$400.

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Robert X. Cringely

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