OLPC: Desperately seeking St. Nick

"What OLPC needs at this point is some good PR"

The One Laptop Per Child mishegas has hit the boiling point, and the hiss of steamed "Give One/Get None" donors has finally gotten the OLPC group's attention.

After my last post about the OLPC problems, I received a flurry of messages from the One Laptop folks, apologizing and offering to help with the complaints I'd forwarded.

(Tellingly, it seems the OLPC volunteers don't actually speak to one another. I got one response telling me that Cringester W. G.'s problem with his missing laptop had been solved; four hours later, I got one from another OLPC volunteer, asking for W. G.'s contact information so that they could help him out.)

W. G. confirms that he received a replacement for the XO machine that went AWOL in Fed Ex, and that it works "beautifully." That's some good news.

The other good news is that, according to OLPC product manager Kim Quirk, the project has shipped its first laptops to some darned cute kids in Mongolia.

But shipping to addresses in Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, and other domestic destinations remains a problem. There are still a lot of really ticked-off people out there who paid US$400 or more and are still waiting, and some OLPC volunteers who are only making things worse -- for example, by calling the XO box a "trinket" similar to the free coffee mug you get when you donate money to NPR. (Memo to volunteer S. H.: A laptop is not a coffee mug. And if you don't believe me, feel free to pour cream on your keyboard.)

PC World's Tom Spring has a detailed report on some of what went wrong with OLPC, and Ars Technica has more. From production/supply glitches to problems with PayPal and address information, it's been one huge cluster****, filled with blame shifting, finger pointing, and misinformation.

Reading the back and forth between OLPC folks and aggrieved consumers on sites like OLPC News, you start to understand why Intel said "thanks, but no thanks" to the OLPC project.

Listen: These are not mission-critical PCs. Nobody in the U.S. really needs an XO machine. They're a curiosity, a toy, and an interesting harbinger of what thin client/fat cloud computing may be like down the road. I'd bet what most ticked-off G1G1 customers really want is accurate information -- what's been truly lacking in this whole mess.

What OLPC needs at this point is some good PR. A grand gesture by papa bear Negroponte. Some Jobsian beneficence that makes OLPC look like the high-minded organization it is, and not the bumbling incompetents they now appear to be. And a public apology -- not by some random PR volunteer -- couldn't hurt neither.

How about it, St. Nick? Time to step up.

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld

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