US OLPC recipients irate over delays, headaches

The charitable Give One, Get One XO laptop program comes under fire by participants who say they've suffered chronic delivery snafus and delays.

When Seattle, Washington resident David Ruggiero heard about an opportunity to get his hands on the innovative XO laptop made by the One Laptop Per Child charitable organization, he hopped on it. Within two hours after the promotion began on Nov. 12 he snapped one up.

"It was for a good cause and also I really wanted a cool geeky toy for myself," Ruggiero says. Two and half months after placing his order, Ruggiero still has no XO, and he--and many others who took advantage of OLPC's Give One, Get One program--are furious about having to deal with a litany of problems associated with the purchase.

The original aim of OLPC was to develop a US$100 laptop for children in poor nations to ensure they don't miss out on the benefits of computing, and to make sure developing countries don't fall further and further behind modern nations due to their inability to buy computers. This is a conundrum commonly referred to as the digital divide. A similar OLPC campaign for poor U.S. students was announced this month.

"I'm a big supporter of the OLPC and think it's a fantastic mission, but there comes a point where you've got to say enough is enough," Ruggiero says.

The Give One, Get One program, launched last November, allowed let U.S. and Canadian residents to donate $400 to pay for two XO laptops. One laptop would go to a deserving child in a developing nation, and the other would go to the donor. The program was originally intended to last two weeks but was later extended for six. The offer ended on Dec. 31.

Complaint Flood

Complaints over delivery noshows, hour-long hold times on the phone trying to get in touch with the OLPC "Donor Services," and bungled customer service calls are common on OLPC message boards and at the independent site where XO customers linger online to commiserate over shipping woes.

Those who paid for their laptop using a PayPal account seem to be disproportionately affected. Many complain they've had to verify their address because--for reasons that are unclear-- their address information was incomplete. To add insult to injury, those same people claim that, despite calling OLPC reps to update their shipping address, they've later discovered the OLPC still has the incomplete address on file, which they are told is the reason that their shipment is delayed.

OLPC Apologizes

OLPC spokesperson Jackie Lustig acknowledges problems with the ordering and the fulfillment process, but says the biggest challenges are a short supply of XO laptops and the organization's ability to meet consumer demand for the XO laptop. She says interest in the program has been much larger than expected and more than OLPC can handle.

So far about 80,000 U.S. and Canadian OLPC donors took advantage of the Give One, Get One program, she says. Lustig declined to say exactly what percentage of customers have received their XO laptops.

"There have been delays in getting the laptops to those who generously donated to the program. And we are sorry," Lustig says. She says a special phone line is being set up for people who want to cancel their order and want a refund.

She says that the OLPC made a decision that getting laptops to developing nations was more important that delivering them to consumers. She adds that, while many laptops have already shipped to U.S. donors, the OLPC never offered anyone a firm delivery date. The terms and conditions when buying the XO state: "Delivery of your XO laptop may be subject to delays, and neither OLPC Foundation nor its suppliers can be responsible for any delays in delivery."

Despite these terms, many purchasers insist XO Donor Services representatives have made delivery promises that are not being met.

Some also wonder whether chronic delivery problems for Give One, Get One donors may bode poorly for the 15 countries slated to receive nearly 500,000 XO notebooks. "If OLPC can't get notebooks to people in an industrialized nation, how can we expect it to deliver them to a country with a subpar infrastructure?" asks Mindy Engelberg, another disgruntled XO customer.

Lustig says delivering in bulk to just over a dozen countries is infinitely simpler than processing and delivering 80,000 individual laptops.

Fed Up

The OLPC's apology may not be enough for Ruggiero and others. Ruggiero is so fed up he says he's considering taking Lustig up on her offer and getting his money back.

Engelberg of Everett, Washington, says she spent US$800 for two XO notebooks and hasn't received either. "I keep hearing I'm going to get my laptops by this date, or next week, or it's shipping," she says. "I wait and get nothing."

"The lack of clear communication has been what really annoys me," Engelberg adds.

Compounding the frustration is that OLPC doesn't appear to have a functional order tracking system. According to XO customers, an order tracking page on the OLPC's site at the URL site allows you to punch in your order number to get shipping status. Those that use the site receive the message "you can check on the status of your laptop by visiting," which is the exact same site.

Many of those that ordered the little laptops say they believe the culprit behind XO delays is a third-party California company called Patriot that OLPC hired to process orders and handle customer support. However, Doug Livingston, Patriot president and chief operating officer, begs to differ.

Livingston says his company just fields the calls, verifies the addresses, and forwards that information on to another company that boxes and preps the XOs for delivery. "All the information we receive is from the OLPC," he says.

Livingston says when an address is truncated or includes a post office box address (which its shipping agent Federal Express won't deliver to) it's something Patriot tries to correct. But, he stresses, his company never collected address information to begin with. OLPC's Lustig acknowledges a problem in collecting complete address information for PayPal customers and some other customers who paid with a credit card.

"We absolutely have to verify an address is valid before we send the laptop out," Livingston says.

He is aware of long hold times that OLPC customers have had to endure, but says his company was not contracted by OLPC to handle the "extensive" call volumes it is currently receiving.

OLPC says the buck stops with it. "We take complete responsibility for the problems customers are having," Lustig says.

To that end, Lustig can't says she can't say for sure when the last XO notebook will be shipped to each Give One, Get One participant.

But at this time, she says, there are no plans to Give One, Get One program to Europe, as some reports have rumored.

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Tom Spring

PC World
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