'Gee, I Can't Wait To Get My Hands On The New OLPC Machine,' Says No One

The Verge reports seeing the new OLPC XO-4 in the wild at CES being demoed by Marvell Technology Group, which became a corporate sponsor for One Laptop Per Child back in 2006 and then in 2010 widened its deal to include jointly developing future machines. The new machine has a touch screen and runs faster than its predecessor, though specs and pricing are not available.

The bigger question is Why? Why do these people keep inflicting these incredibly ugly and unreliable machines on an unsuspecting world?

Like most people, I applauded the ideas behind the original effort, which was organized in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, a smug, pompous professor of something vague at MIT. His idea was to create a simple, rugged, low-cost machine that would put computing into the hands of millions, maybe billions of kids in the developing world. Who could argue with that?

Turns out, however, that while Negroponte was great at self-promotion and great at making grand pronouncements on 60 Minutes and at TED conferences, he was selling something he couldn't deliver. In that sense he was basically a fancy-pants infomercial pitchman, a sort of academic version of the guys who sell ShamWow and natural cures that "they" don't want you to know about.

The difference was that Nicholas Negroponte could put the initials "MIT" next to his name, which gave him credibility and caused people to take him as seriously as he takes himself. He dressed the whole thing up with specious guff about Constructionist and Constructivist learning theories and Seymour Papert and Jean Piaget. With his Corbusier eyewear and tweeds and turtlenecks, Negroponte is very good at looking and sounding like a real professor, but mostly what he does is play one on TV.

One thing Negroponte certainly could not do was actually make stuff. The OLPC project was a train wreck. Delays, controversies, changes, announcements made and then rolled back, top people quitting because they clashed with Negroponte. Typical start-up stuff.

The real problem was that OLPC had touted this thing endlessly as "$100 laptop," and then itcouldn't make it for a hundred bucks. Not even close. Instead, it was $200!

Give One, Get One

Nevertheless, in 2007, when the first machine (the XO-1) came out, I participated in the "Give One, Get One" campaign where I spent $400 to buy two machines, getting one for myself and giving another to a kid someplace.

It was, in short, a piece of junk. Totally unusable. The interface sucked. The software was impossible to understand, not to mention buggy, laggy and incomplete. The keyboard didn't work. The overall build quality was terrible. A machine that was supposed to be rugged enough to survive in a Third World village looked like it would snap to pieces just taking it out of the box.

But I wanted a second opinion. So I gave the XO-1 to a kid in my neighborhood. She was about ten years old, computer literate, in fact, a bit of a geek. She had seen and heard the glowing news reports about the amazing "$100 laptop" and was dying to get her hands on one. She screamed when she saw it, and her face lit up like Charlie winning the golden ticket to the Willy Wonka chocolate factory. (It's hard to remember but back in those days there was loads of buzz about the OLPC.)

A few days later I got her report. I could tell what she thought by the look on her face. She was heartbroken. Worse than that. You remember that moment in your life when you first realized that adults don't always tell the truth? Even the ones that you trust and think are good people? Remember when you first realized that the things you see on TV, even things you see on the news, sometimes are just totally not true? And right then, in that very moment, you become a little bit suspicious, a little bit jaded, and a bit of the magic of your childhood has been snuffed out. And though you might not be able to put this into words, you are somehow aware, deep down, that this is the moment when your childhood ended.

This was that moment for her. Well done, Nicholas Negroponte.

Lessons Learned?

But anyway, fair enough. It was a well-meaning idea and it flopped. Dust yourself off, take some lessons from it and move on, right?

Wrong. For reasons that no one understands, these guys would not quit.

They decided to make another machine. And another. And another, which is this new one that we're seeing at CES this year.

Again I ask, why?

Especially since, guess what? We now have an actual $100 computer. Loads of them, in fact. They're called smartphones and tablets. Many can be had for well under $100. 

This is more than can be said for the XO machine, which even now, eight years after Negroponte first dreamed up the idea, still costs a lot more than a hundred bucks.

That's right. Nearly a decade into this, OLPC still can't hit its original price point.

XO machines aren't sold to regular customers. The only people who buy them are government ministries in developing countries. They don't dish out the money because the machines are so good, or because the price is so great, because neither of those things are true.

They buy them for publicity. These are politicians. They get big stories and photos of themselves in the paper. And it costs them nothing, because they're playing with government money.

On the other side of the transaction are a bunch of pampered academics and First World do-gooders who no doubt have very good intentions but are basically foisting overpriced junk onto kids in poor countries.

Why do they do it? To make themselves feel better. To feed their egos by creating a gorgeous feel-good website loaded with beautiful Sally Struther-esque photos of kids in villages holding XO machines and smiling.

But there is simply no need for the XO-4, XO-5, XO-27 or any other XO, ever. The OLPC folks had a good idea, but they blew it. They should stop.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.