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It breaks my heart to see such wonderful design work from so many talented designers go to waste but the announcement that the One Laptop Per Child Foundation is offering a 2-for-1 sale in the U.S. of the beautiful little machine should mark the end of this grand—and deeply flawed—effort.
Some of the best designers in the world have worked on OLPC—the folks at Continuum, Yves Behar at fuseprojects and Lisa Strausfeld at Pentagram who created a breakthrough interface for children and perhaps the rest of us.
But project, led, championed and aggressively sold by what my colleague Steve Hamm calls that übertechnology visionary Nicholas Negroponte, ex-MIT Media Lab, broke the most important design rule from the very beginning of the project. Design from the bottom up, not top down. This was, almost in every way, a traditional top down product development, that involved the rural children in India, Africa and China only in the late stages. Near-finished prototypes were tested out late in development, brought to village kids as a “gift.” It would have been far better to begin in the villages, spend time there and build from the bottom up. Negroponte might have discovered there was little need for this kind of machine. Cell phones are far more popular as the means to connect to the net in much of the Third World and cell-phone type devices rather than cute little laptops might have made much more sense. Tons of research show this to be true.
In addition, OLPC was a high-profile deal of one man evangelizing top government officials on how he can save their poor children and, in the end, these politicians abandoned him. Despite all the handshakes, the Indian and Chinese governments didn’t order any XOs. Again, classic design mistakes of not getting buy-in from groups needed to launch a new product.
It may be that a deal with Intel will give new life to the OLPC laptop down the road. I certainly hope so. But it won’t be the kind of success originally envisioned by Negroponte.
I would love to have an XO, just to see how great designers do great design. It has amazing features—tough, open source software, low energy use, an easy-to-use interface, etc. There just may be a market in the US for it among kids. I don’t know. I hope so.
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