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It's Time To Call One Laptop Per Child A Failure,

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on September 24, 2007

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.

Reader Comments

Dominic Muren

September 24, 2007 2:30 PM

I couldn't agree more. When I heard that OLPC was coming stateside this morning, it struck me as the last insult in a sting of pretty brutal hits on the project's validity.

I think the fundamental problem goes even deeper than the top-down design of the product (which was a serious limitation, to be sure). In much the same way that we have recently failed to export "American democracy" to the rest of the world, this laptop was a cheapified version of "American technology". The assumption that what would work best for other people was a system where typing, screen display, and GUI programs were the norm was the quintessential flaw in this design. Even if good design practices had been used to decide "what kind of laptop" works best in the "non-American" world, this still assumes the need for a laptop.

Like Bruce, I would have liked to see those design heavyweights come up with a radically new electronic interface paradigm, uniquely suited to use in a non-web-permeated market. Of course, this would require a subtle understanding of that user group that few of these big-shots possess.

To my mind, if the current OLPC model can be sold in the US market, this more than anything indicates that it missed an opportunity.

Steve Portigal

September 24, 2007 2:43 PM

So you are telling us that this product was developed without understanding the needs (culture, adoption patterns, platforms, etc.) of the end users, yet you still call this "great design"?

Bruce Nussbaum

September 24, 2007 2:47 PM

Yeah, sounds contradictory. Sorry. I meant that great designers did great design for the interface and the form but the folks in charge of the project failed the first principles of design test--the most important of which is know the culture, know the people, for whom and with whom you are designing.
Unless there is a universal design thing going on, the idea that rich, urban American kids and poor, rural Indian kids will want to access the net and learn from the same computer is wrong-headed and naive.
Waht do you think?

Todd W.

September 24, 2007 3:35 PM

Yes, it seems this effort ignored the first step in any design effort, as Steve mentioned. This sounds a lot like other "design gifts" bestowed by the First World on the Third World, as critiqued by David Stairs over at Design Observer in "Why Design Won’t Save the World". This is probably over-localizing the problem, as it's present in alot of "design" work, whether presented to global corporations or rural Indian villages.

The ugly secret underlying this is that while there are many, like yourself, who champion an approach to design that starts with the end-user's problems at hand and then initiates a design-oriented solution, there is still a lot of design work that is presented to it's audience as if it descended from heaven. If, in the end, it doesn't solve the user's problem, then the user just hasn't understood the solution properly. The designer goes on to collect an award and the client's check and the user is left no better off.

Glen Nickerson

September 24, 2007 4:13 PM

Bruce and Dominic,
Do you really believe that kids in developing countries or their parents are going to tell you what they need for user interfaces? In many of these countries, the government is in charge of the education process, and a better entry point.
I doubt that cell phones would be the platform for education of children in a classroom; do you believe it would cost less? The only setback to this program is the cost almost doubled from the $100 target. What good comes from terming it a failure at this point?

Bruce Nussbaum

September 24, 2007 4:24 PM

Hi. No, I don't think that kids in rural villages at the bottom of the pyramid will "tell" us what they need for education but good ethnographers and design researchers are trained to observe cultures and contexts and learn what "unmet" needs these kids might have and how they might be met. That includes education. I don't know what platform would be best for these kids.

I do know that their parents in India and Africa are using cell phones to connect to the web more than they are using PCs. It might be logical to somehow use the platform already accepted in the villages. I don't really know.

Yes, the jump in price is a very serious problem but I don't believe it is the major one. The OLPC was a top-down operation, not a bottoms-up one. Had it begun in the villages, it might have been able to build a strong coalition to support it. And it might have designed a tool that the kids were wild about, demanded from their parents and teachers, who then pressured their governments.

Instead, it was designed and developed by the best and brightest of the Western world and then tossed at the little consumers late, in proto-type phase.

This is a classic case study of what can go wrong in design.

niti bhan

September 24, 2007 4:26 PM

the cellphone has already reached remote and rural areas in most of these places, changing the lives of those who buy, use or share them. serving up education and information via this medium is but the logical next step.

Glen Nickerson

September 24, 2007 5:17 PM

Bruce, I agree with you that the design process could be flawed by not gathering cultural and contextural needs. Building the strong coalition to support the product is key to any startup, and this group must have started with user criterion and developing country environment (no money, no electricity, no books).

This product may be far from perfect, but there is a usability study in Denmark just published in the PC World article which validates many of the XO design features.

I also agree with you that one of the major keys to success is to create the pull from those with means to support it, whether from government policy or philanthropic avenues in an environment of "no money". That seems to be the next battle, concurrent with their standards war, and design freeze deadlines, to get the numbers up for mass production.

A very interesting case study... it will be most interesting to see how the latest 2 for 1 program works out.


George Snell

September 24, 2007 5:55 PM

Hi Bruce:
I work as a communications volunteer for OLPC. I think you're missing the point completely. This project isn't about "connecting" to the Internet. It's about education.

The project is about using technology to tap into children's innate curiosity and creativity. Try to write a paper on a cell phone. Try to read a textbook on a cell phone. Try to make a digital drawing on a cell phone. Try to put together a music score on a cell phone.

It's not possible -- nor is it feasible.

We have pilot programs across the globe and those pilots have helped us design and change the XO to make it better for the children using them. So please don't say that we have designed the XO in a vacuum. We're in these developing countries and have been for many, many months.

Calling the project a failure on the eve of the start of mass production seems to be a bit premature. The project is in great shape and the G1G1 program is a way to make this a truly global project.

But we do appreciate the attention -- I hope you'll continue to watch the project as it unfolds.

Dominic Widdows

September 24, 2007 5:56 PM

All agree that cellphones are taking off faster than laptops in some parts of the world. But can anyone point to a project that has used cellphones to provide serious educational benefit? Would you condemn "top down designers" for trying to give children textbooks if they already prefer magazines? I agree that much can be done with better user-centered design, by asking teachers and students what they really need. But it's way too easy to say "hey, we should have just done what the kids wanted", and only realize too late that kids want games, cool ringtones and music videos. Parts of Westernism that are penetrating very quickly anyway! I don't think you can fairly assess Negroponte's project without realizing that its success shouldn't be judged by how many units ship, comparing with (say) cellphones. We might be better off to wait and see over time if there's a correlation between children who use one of these laptops and those who make it through high school to university and fulfilling jobs. (Or some shorter term measure, which you may need to secure further investment.) In the meantime, I might be tempted to buy one - it sounds like they're going to be a lot harder to break than a lot of more expensive hardware!


September 24, 2007 6:09 PM

shut up, please shut up! I have no time for uneducated critics, the olpc is going to change the world and old world views, much like your own are going to be put where they belong, in the Archives of how people used to think before the Brave New World of thinkers such as the olpc team came along. Blue Sky is the only way forward.

Bruce Nussbaum

September 24, 2007 6:35 PM

Sorry, I'm not trying to upset you by calling OLPC a failure on the eve of mass production but I am trying to point up serious mistakes made along the way that erode the chances of success.
The fact that OLPC has been in developing countries for many, many months is no comfort because it should have been in the villages from the beginning--years ago when the concept was first broached. Putting prototypes in the hands of kids after the fact and then tweaking--or even changing dramatically--is not the same thing as working with them from the beginning.
I do appreciate that the goal is education, not simply connecting to the internet, but the OLPC has made a fetish of the internet in selling the laptop. How else to deliver the information?
Morever, children in different cultures learn in different ways. You need to spend time understanding this and creating digital lesson plans that they can relate to and use. There are still very few of these digital lesson plans in the US and Europe after many years of work. Where is the list of such plans for the different linguistic and cultural groups in India, in China and across Africa. Indeed, if reading textbooks is the issue, who reads entire books on computers?
As for the cellphone, they are ubiquitous in the villages of India and people are using them for all kinds of things--paying bills, getting prices for grain--by connecting to the internet. Most of these innovations are by Indians themselves. To me, it is not a very far leap to ask if a cell-phone type instrument, perhaps with a plug in keyboard or screen, that is common and comfortable already in rural villages, might not be the better form for an education tool.

Glen Nickerson

September 24, 2007 7:33 PM


Need to ask the kid's teachers, regarding type of platform and lesson content needed, don't we? Is their ability to learn, create, develop and communicate (in a structured classroom environment) better with a phone or a laptop? Either way, it gets back to economics. A phone with a keyboard and quality screen quickly starts to add up to more than $100. Still maintain it is too early to term XO a failure as your article title presumes.


George Snell

September 24, 2007 7:48 PM

Hi Bruce:
I'm not upset and certainly don't want to give the impression that I am. I think it's great that people debate the merits of the project -- in fact OLPC promotes this kind of back-and-forth exchange.

But I still don't agree with your assessment. OLPC has worked with educators, technologists, designers, software developers and computer scientists from all over the world in developing this amazing project. OLPC has been open from the very beginning -- and have gotten suggestions, ideas and concepts from literally thousands of people of all ages and nationalities. OLPC has been open and inviting from the get go.

The XO wasn't developed in a lab and then unleashed on the kids -- so you're mistaken if that is your impression.

Not sure what you're talking about when you say the Web is a fetish for OLPC. The project believes connectivity is important and a big part of sharing information. While the cell phone is an amazing innovation -- it isn't the right tool for education -- which is why you don't see Western school children researching and writing school reports on them. Please point me to all the successful education programs in the West designed around cell phones because I'd love to see them.

Surely you can't be suggesting that OLPC develop lesson plans first and then the build the computer later? The laptop had to come first or it would all be a mute point.

Again -- how you can call the project a failure with no evidence is a bit perplexing. OLPC is putting the finishing touches on a final laptop (and the technology innovations alone are incredible) and will be building 250,000 before the end of the year...

Jump in, Bruce, the water's fine!

Richard Wicks

September 24, 2007 7:53 PM

A government program fail?!?!?!

Gee whiz, color ME shocked!

Hell, give me 100,000 of them, let me put whatever software on them I like, and I can guarantee they fly off the shelves at Fry's.

As soon as you put it in a politician's hands, it's just a matter of time before somebody is either bribed to stop it, feels threatened by it so they kill it, or is just too stupid to see the value in it. There's nothing the government hasn't had their hand in they didn't screw up. Just look at what has become of public education. Why can't I download my kid's history book online, it's PUBLIC education, isn't it?

No, it's just another government monopoly.

Bob Blaich

September 24, 2007 8:14 PM

Have you actually tested the laptop? I did, as a juror for the Danish INDEX-2007 award. which gave them a 100,000 EURO prize. Granted I am not part of the target market but I do support the concept and feel this is a good first step. I do agree that bottom up is the best way to go as in the programs proposed by C.K. Prahalad for the bottom of the pyramid. I am ordering the "Two for One" from the Foundation and will give one to my 9 year old grandson to test out. I'll let you know the result

David Armano

September 24, 2007 8:21 PM

I think the cellphone comments in this thread are very telling. If indeed, mobile phones are being adopted in developing nations (and most studies seem to support this) it's actually quite logical to make that leap that a Laptop model might not be the best approach. It's a totally different experience from mobile.

It's not so dissimilar from what we are seeing in the corporate world. Many brands have tried creating their own networks—never fully understanding that people who frequent their own networks have no desire to leave them just because a Brand created one (usually an inferior one).

I agree, this comes back to a fundamentally understanding of culture and behavior. But from a visual and functional design perspective—what a wonderful execution.

Guess there is a big lesson in this. We'll all have to learn from it.

Sameer Verma

September 24, 2007 9:12 PM

When I look at the XO (not OX, as Mr. Nussbaum puts it), I see a box of Lego(TM). I see a toolbox that allows you to build. Indeed, different cultures teach and learn differently, but that isn't a drawback of the project. The XO is a waffle cone - fill in your own ice cream.

I grew up in India, and interestingly, I had the luxury of a box full of Lego(TM) parts - bricks, wheels, axles, lights. Back then, the Indian market did not sell Lego(TM), so my family had to import it. It was that box of parts that allowed me to tinker and think in three dimensions. I had lost the original instruction booklet a long time ago, so I had no lesson plans - I had to rely on my own imagination (make my own ice cream). The same tinkering led me to program on a BBC micro at my school and create payroll printouts, without any lesson plans.

Today, I am a professor of Information Systems, but what I do is not far from that Lego(TM) box. Sure, we have lesson plans, but its the tinkering that makes a difference.

I applaud the XO as a vehicle for ideas. Its as dumb (or smart) as the user. XO is the messenger and not the message itself. If you don't like the message, the remedy is: 1)roll up sleeves, 2)fix it 3)repeat as often as needed. Start here:


Lou Zitan

September 24, 2007 9:15 PM


you are talking about a subject you are not very familiar with (but don't worry, most people look at Negroponte's MIT background and immediately forget the most obvious questions).

If you ever bother to get the following obvious questions answered in a straightforward manner, you'll know how "good" this machine is (not).

1. If I buy one, can I just get an off-the-shelf printer and install it for use with this laptop?

2. Can I store my work on this laptop?

3. Is there any 3rd. party software available for this machine?

4. Can I install any of my favorite software?

I can promise you you won't get any straight ansers, becuase they come with HUGE asterisks, like "Yes, you can install a printer, BUT you will need to...".

In other words, this "laptop" is a toy that regular people won't be able to use in a regular way without MAJOR modifications and MAJOR investments on additional hardware.


September 24, 2007 9:29 PM

Nice insights/reminders Bruce. Interesting next chapter will be to see if (how soon) this little monster becomes a "cult" must-have among hackers and college kids and fashionistas. I know that I'm seriously considering buying one just for the cool factor. Wish I still had my old kaypro II (so incredibly unhip) and my awesome little Tandy 200. Now that was a piece of work.


September 24, 2007 9:30 PM

I think that there is an important point which has not been mentioned: since when is a charity program needed in order to lower the price of consumer electronics? If there is one rule, it's that the market has driven down the price of cameras, cell phones, TVs, and, yes, laptops every single year for generations. Meaning that sometime, oh, next year we will HAVE a $100 laptop, and it won't be the OLPC.

OLPC also ignores the fact that computers (ie, cell phones) are spreading all over the developing world and only lack the right software to become potent educational tools (we don't think of them that way, because for us a "computer" is something with a big screen sitting on a table).

Peter Mortensen

September 24, 2007 9:37 PM

You're right that a major problem with such a top-down solution is that it will tend to over-assume the outcome and miss the bigger problem, Bruce, but I don't believe that something cell phone related is the answer either.

Anyone asked to produce an artifact that drastically change people's lives for the better often go for overly simplistic views of the world (ie: this laptop = a small education gap in Africa) or focus on immediately solvable problems. The one thing that the OLPC initiative does really well is encourage mesh networking, so the collective benefit of access to the Internet is amplified by additional participants. On the other hand, it introduces the kinds of problems the Internet always brings with it, such as access to information many cultures would rather have hidden (explicit sexuality, alternative political views, religious debates), which creates strife its creators never meant to.

I'm still interested to see what happens with OLPC. It's not going to fix rural African education -- but I bet it will find an interesting application at some point. And when it does, figure out who is doing it and study them. That's the only reason the failure of the Zoomer was flipped around into the success of the Palm Pilot. An extreme-user study might be an outstanding next step. The question is who those people are and what we can learn from them.


September 24, 2007 10:35 PM

Cell phones are certainly great tools. But laptops are too, in that they provide access to Internet resources like Google, electronic books, and communication as well. It is a false tradeoff.

The argument that the design has to be totally bottoms up seems misguided. iPod was conceived brilliantly then refined with customer input but still lots of great tops down thinking. XO will evolve similarly.

Five years from now when may be well over 10M of these deployed you may look back on this article as one of your worst predictions. We shall see.

Dorab Wolfherring

September 24, 2007 10:48 PM


The snarky, over-simplyfying, self-serving comments from the top down here are just exhausting.

Nussbaum's personal distaste for Negroponte is obvious, transparent even, and I could care less about it.

I don't understand how OLPC can be seen as anything but a stupendous try for something special.

Truth is, people love the scent of failure, or potential failure, or even difficulty achieving success...and in the face of it, everyone's a $%^#& pundit, with reams of reasons why.

Please please please, give me a break.

Check here for a less...opinionated opinion...

bruce nussbaum

September 24, 2007 11:00 PM

I played with the XO at Davos last year where the OLPC folks had a whole day of trying it out. I thought it was wonderful. The look, the feel--all of it. But I'm not a South Asian village kid and have no idea whether or not this can work for that kid. I don't know if Indian education professions have worked out digitial lesson plans for each of the different cultural groups in India. Ditto for China, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East. And I don't know if a laptop is the way to go at all. Do our kids in public schools get their education through a laptop?

bruce nussbaum

September 24, 2007 11:28 PM

I wish you and OLPC all the luck. My best teaching years were in the Peace Corps in the Philippines offering up science to third graders. Educating kids is a serious issue to me.
And how to do it is a serious issue as well. I think the XO is a marvelous creation. The interface alone is brilliant and so is the form, the interconnectivity and a dozen other innovations. It may very well be that a way can be found to introduce it to millions of kids and it helps them learn.
But the original OLPC plan to build a cheap laptop that governments would buy by the millions and drop into rural classrooms is dead. They aren't doing it. The strrategic shift to include Intel may help. The 2 for 1 sale in the US is a way to try and kick-start the effort. But, alas, it probably won't work. The laptop wasn't designed for US kids.
My major point is a theoretical design one--the process was top down and it failed to generate the collaboration needed to make it work. Why has the Indian government refused to give the OLPC a contract for millions of laptops. Ditto for China? They didn't buy in. They see it as an "outside" attempt.
This is how innovation fails in so many American companies.
I truly hope that the OLPC recovers from this point and gets into the hands of enough kids in enough villages to see if this experiment works or not.


September 24, 2007 11:45 PM

I think it's time to call Bruce Nussbaum a failure. For not understanding how revolutionary the OLPC is. And for not understanding that it's not a piece of cake to revolutionnize the whole computer industry with such giants as Microsoft and Intel putting their whole corporate marketing machinery into trying to make the XO-1 fail. Do you think Microsoft and Intel would like to see cheap AMD powered Linux laptops take over the world? You can be sure they are doing what they can to stop this or slow this down, they have done so thus far.

Luckilly we also have the supposedly open market forces and enough uncorrupted politicians around the world so that once the "Buy 1, Give 1" campaign has brought tens of thousands of XO-1 laptops in the hands of decision makers in the developped world, and that this campaign will bring tens of thousands more laptops into the hands of developping countries who want to test i by the early 2008, this will be enough to get mass orders signed which are needed to bring the price down below $100.

bruce nussbaum

September 25, 2007 12:05 AM

I couldn't agree more that the OLPC is a revolutionary device. I am asking if it is the appropriate device for kids in rural villages at the bottom of the pyramid. Testing it by first making it and then putting it into kids hands, as you suggest, isn't the best way to develop any product or service. Better to research out the culture at the beginning of the process and then move to create the technology and experiences that work for the target consumers.
As for Microsoft and Intel, alas, OLPC is already making alliances with them.


September 25, 2007 12:32 AM

No one has pointed out yet the critical factor in the deployment of cellphone technology v. the OLPC approach.

Cell phone technology is being deployed throughout the developing world where ever governments have permitted two or more licensees to go into business.

The OLPC approach was, as many others have pointed out, a "top down" "we know best" non-market-oriented project based on government distribution channels in developing countries. (And anyone who has worked with those countries in such fields as seeds for agriculture or medicinal drugs knows what a swamp that is).

The most helpful strategy for the OLPC project is to license all there technology to whomever wants to use it for the production of cheap computers.


September 25, 2007 1:16 AM


While I think you're a tad too harsh on OLPC, your underlying theme is correct - it is a top down program designed from afar that Negroponte attempted to sell to Presidents without understanding the true decision makers - Ministers of Education - and influencers - teachers.

You might also want to note that George Snell isn't a "communications volunteer", he is a PR professional employed at Race Point Group to promote OLPC.


September 25, 2007 4:03 AM

Laptops and the Internet are proven technologies, we have been testing and developping them for the past 10 years in the developped countries of the world. We know that Internet and computers improve the lives of people.

As for Microsoft and Intel, excuse me for insisting on the fact, that Microsoft does not like the idea of a free open source OS taking over the world, thus as a reaction to OLPC, Microsoft lowered the licencing cost of Windows XP from $75 to $3 in developping countries.

And for Intel, you can be sure that their corporates have been shaken by the Davos World Economic Forums and UN meetings where all the world leaders are constantly praising the concept of building a $100 laptop for every one of a billion Children. So Intel is lying about their Classmate PC being as cheap when it really costs the double and performs worse, and Intel also finally has decided to develop fanless low power x86 processors to compete in the AMD Geode segment, but Intel's first really low power processor won't be available before 2008 when Intel launches Menlow. And nothing is known about Intel Menlow's efficiency and cost. Good luck to Intel about doing a better lower power and lower cost processor then AMD for the XO-2 design, but today Intel does simply not have it. And Intel has so far not said anything about their next generation low power low cost processor to be used in any low cost laptop or desktop computer. Fact is, Intel and its PC industry partners, are not very attracted to ultra low cost computers, cause lower margins and higher volume is not the way they want to sell most computers too soon.

George Snell

September 25, 2007 5:53 PM

Yes, Wayan, I do work at Racepoint Group and, yes, I am a PR professional, but I'm also a OLPC volunteer. I don't take any money from OLPC and neither does Racepoint Group. We have volunteered to help them with their communications because we believe in the project.

John Bryans Fontaine

September 26, 2007 12:20 AM

Nussbaum's article reeks from the stench of mendacious shrewdness.

How is he sure that the OLPC computer is indeed a failure? If these children can use a cell phone, why can't they use this new computer? And a cell phone can't help educate them. And how many of us use cell phones to write and post comments such as these??

Maybe Nussbaum is jealous of Steve Hamm. Who has created something, if not perfect, at the least, fantastic.

Bruce Nussbaum

September 26, 2007 1:06 PM

Steve Hamm is a brilliant journalist and colleague and I am indeed jealous of his talent. That said, even Steve would agree with me that the test of OLPC is not the excellence of the laptop itself. It is designed by the best and is a wonderful tool.
The issue is whether or not it is appropriate. When I called it a "failure," I meant that the original goals were not achieved--the governments that were supposed to buy millions refused. The nonprofit "business model" is a failure.
The question we should be asking them is why? Why did the education ministries in India and China and other nations say "no?"
The next question to ask is what were the educational methods (lesson plans, etc.) designed for the OLPC and were they appropriate? Who drew them up? Who co-created them?
I don't know the answers to these questions? But we do need to hear from the voices of those who were supposed to be using these computers.
Don't you agree?


September 26, 2007 2:27 PM

"Laptops and the Internet are proven technologies, we have been testing and developping them for the past 10 years in the developped countries of the world. We know that Internet and computers improve the lives of people."

--> We should get used to the fact that what works in the rich countries may not be the right solution for the poor ones. That's why, as Bruce rightly points out, it's always a good idea to talk to customers before designing the product. It might even lead you to develop *another* product.

If "proven technologies" (whatever that may be) turn out to be the right solution, then so be it. But it's indeed a mistake to take this for granted without researching it.


September 26, 2007 6:08 PM

As a professional in an industrial design firm, I see the frustration in our designers when a client insists on a given solution and just wants us to "draw' it. Design is indeed the process of making sure that every thing has a purpose. As provacative and controversial as this sometime makes the process, it is the only way that a successful solution will be produced. The question to me is not "how much research was done?" but rather "how much relevent data was collected and used?" Reseach should never end.

Zachary Jean Paradis

September 26, 2007 7:16 PM

Bruce states an important point that a "top down" design process is ultimately flawed when compared to one driven from the "bottom up". The fact that he perhaps overstates that the OLPC will ultimately be a failure (in fact, only stated in the title) doesn't invalidate this point. Technologists like Negroponte invariably think that ideas they develop (in their nice labs) will obviously be adopted by the masses. At the same time lack of adoption because of not understanding people's real needs is easily the biggest reason investments in technology fail. This isn't just about asking people what they need but also observing their context and developing solutions for common problems.

Bruce started this forum (thankfully) to share opinions and provide a place for discussion. He didn't have to do it. That said, his opinions are just that! Extremists need to stop taking opinion as "truth" and make their comments a bit more constructive.

Zachary Jean Paradis

Bruce Nussbaum

September 26, 2007 7:39 PM

Thank you. We created an insightful thread of a conversation on important issues surrounding OLPC and I hope to continue a bit longer. The nature of design, the role of nonprofits, the use of technology to teach and the best ways of educating young people in rural villages are all extremely important.
BTW, I try to frame issues to provoke discussion. It's a natural form for blogs online--and in speeches. When I write stories for Inside Innovation or Business Week, that requires a different form, one more appropriate to the medium.


September 26, 2007 8:49 PM

I have a question: is there a facilitation stage planned to accompany the delivery of the hardware? How do the laptops get delivered, etc.

It would be interesting to know the strategy for implementation. Maybe this is where the more democratic design work takes place.

Lori Hobson

September 26, 2007 9:20 PM

Dear Bruce:

When I read about efforts focused on using tech to help children in rural areas of impoverished regions, I sometimes wonder if our focus is entirely misplaced. Children are innocents, and they are indeed the future promise for the economies. However, would our focus be better spent on helping adults use technology to improve the economic situation for their families? It might not pull on our heart strings the way helping a kid can, and it's not as sexy as the idea of a $100-$200 laptop. I would argue that the basic premise that assumes rural and truly economically impoverished regions benefit most from technology to educate children is flawed. I guess it is supposed to be a vision that sees beyond (lives in denial of) the hierarchy of needs of the "target market." We want to get technology adopted? Perhaps we should try developing technology that helps adults support their families better -- be it laptops or more focused technology. Adults could then teach their children to use these techno goods, reinforcing the family relationship and saving all the cycles that were spent making a computer easy-to-use based on lowest common denominators. Beyond helping adults improve the pressing needs in terms of quality of life, everything else might be a luxury. We fail by viewing the whole problem through our developed world lens. It's like we think everyone needs a well designed LeapPad when a good water pump might be a better bet. It's like trying to feed the malnourished with double deluxe macaroni and cheese.

This is not to say that a computer for every child is less than a noble or valuable cause. The designers did do an awesome job. And if someone decided to give every child -- or let's just say the child's family! -- a cell phone, which is, as you suggest, a more relevant platform, the team you mentioned would rock out at creating the *right* one.

Bruce, there are many design groups that are trying to serve the less commercial, dare-i-say less self-serving opportunities in these regions. Maybe you could do a piece on the solar-powered mobile Internet "cafe" that a student at Art Center designed, c. 2004, based on his first hand knowledge of his own African country. Or even some of the pro bono work that the design firms have done to serve needs beyond how to introduce consumer electronics. Or, maybe it's a stretch, but the awesome AIDS work being supported by the Gates Foundation. Heaven knows that the CE companies will figure out for themselves how to get cell phones and computers in every home.

Kind regards,
Lori H.

Jennifer de Palma

September 26, 2007 11:57 PM

Using a cell phone for education is not a workable solution. What can you do with a cellphone? Call, send text messages, listen to music, try new ring tones, do limited web browsing, take pictures. This is, though, with a modern advanced cell phone. Do people in the third world have such advanced, iphonish gadgets?

I don't think so.

While a cell phone is a good communication tool, you can't use it for education. With the OLPC laptop however, you can do hundreds of things, because it is just a foundation for the kids' curiosity. You can draw, you can compose music, you can read and write, you can program applications, you can even control robots, measure temperature, communicate with other peers - the possibilities are endless. The computer is just the paper and pen for those kids.

I definitely believe it will be a success, no matter if it was designed top-down or down-top. This is just crappy theory.

Jenny de Palma

Neal Soldofsky

September 27, 2007 9:23 AM

As a person with a tendency to latch on to cool ideas without exploring them deeply enough, I appreciate this skeptical look at the OLPC program. But I don't see why a laptop isn't a workable solution for third world countries. I don't think your giving these people enough credit. You pointed out that cellphones would be a better solution because people in third world countries already use them for a variety of things, often in ways not thought of by westerners. I think that is a sign that laptops could be effectively deployed. They are clever enough to exploit cellphones, they have bent that technology to fit so many uses, why not give them a tool as versatile as a laptop and let them run with it. You may think the OLPC people haven't gotten this project quite right, but I think the idea is still valid. Cellphones show that it can be done. If you give them a working tool, uses will be found.

Bruce Nussbaum

September 27, 2007 3:47 PM

You are right in that it very well may be that the laptop proves to be the right (or one of the right) tool for educating kids at the bottom of the pyramid. It hasn't yet happened in most public schools in the US, Europe or Japan for a variety of problems, most of them having to do with a paucity of educational software and lack of teaching training.
I have a bit of trouble with the wonderfully designed XO because it doesn't appear to have that panoply of educational software and teacher training that needs to go along with it. Good design usually (not always but often) starts from the bottom up and here I don't see input from the children and teachers in the thousands of villages at the bottom of the pyramid.
My sense is that OLPC is beta testing the XO--sending prototypes out after they've basically be designed to tweak them. It's a US software beta model--and I don't think it fits into educating kids anywhere in the world. Do you?


September 27, 2007 4:10 PM

Funny, as I think of my own kids and what they use, I'd have to say the iPhone (or, gasp, the rumored to be returning Newton) would be the ticket if I wanted to get them something they'd embrace and immediately use to access the knowledge base -- Portable, ready web access, video enabled teaching tool, easy to use, cell based...okay, fine, I'll go back to snoozing now.


September 27, 2007 6:55 PM


do you know who Symour Papert is?

Enam Rabbani

September 28, 2007 5:29 PM


Although it may be premature and not accurate to describe the OLPC as a failure, there does seem to be red flags indicating that success (as initially intended) may be limited.

Your recommendations about studying how learning takes place in various cultures and building from the bottom up seem so obvious now. So my question to you is this: what causes this blindness during the innovation process that prevents you from seeing the 'obvious'?

And i'm not even talking about hindsight. Back in Oct 2006 there was a great discussion on the Engineers without Borders canada forum, where the major problems with this project were cited. Check out
If you're interested in hearing from people who have experience in appropriate technology and how it actually plays out on the ground, i'd recommend reading the posts.

When I asked the OLPC staff to respond to some of these concerns, their response was that they were too busy in beta testing to answer these questions. A year later, we can see that maybe those questions deserved a bit more attention.

The OLPC is not the first example of a technology focused solution to a problem that requires a much broader view. I was told once that "engineers are in love with their solutions". So what processes can you setup to ensure that your organization maintains an objective and critical attitude at all times, and avoids being blinded by this love?


John Bryans Fontaine

September 28, 2007 6:05 PM

Hello Ben:

Granted, if the governments of India and China, plus others are backing out, then I would call the XO computer a work in progress, though not a failure. China might not want the computer because it could cause ‘too much democracy’ than that nation’s leaders are comfortable with. However, the questions which you raise should be answered. Maybe your article should have been titled 'One Laptop Per Child Program Hits Major Bumps in the Road'

Some possible grounds for hope might be found here:,137373/article.html

Of course, this is the judgement of only two children. But I still think this is good news.

I consider myself a fierce Liberal, and as such, believe that the XO computer has vast potential to level the educational and knowledge playing field in rich versus poor nations. In other words, as knowledge is the new capital, the XO might help poor nations from falling even further behind.


September 29, 2007 4:11 AM

It was a super human effort, but I have to agree with Bruce to a certain extent that the issue was it was a grand scheme thought out by people who felt their better way of life can transcend across cultures and be equally relevant.

It's pretty much a big brother, I know whats best for you approach. The question was in fact was a Laptop the right product in the first place? There are discussion that the mobile phone is a better replacement but it is not an apples to oranges comparison.

I do understand much research was done, but were there conversations with people it was meant to target? What about the environment the OLPC needs to live in? Electricity something we take for granted is not always available in 3rd world countries, so will it sit in the corner discharged?

I'm sure there were both top and bottom end considerations in the design process, but this to me is more of a problem of Design by Committee. To many cooks spoil the broth.

I'm glad they have finally saw the light and gone for the 1 for 1 deal, as this is something that I have long felt as the right way to proceed.


October 4, 2007 9:36 AM

I visited Continuum at the prototyping stage, and saw the designers there shaking their heads at the way the project was headed. They were concerned that it wasn't actually about the end users at all. I guess time will tell.

Claude Singer

October 4, 2007 6:01 PM

The point of one-laptop is to bring the kids of developing countries INTO the modern world -- not help them create a separate world. It's nice to think of a "bottom-up design" -- except that the result might have further isolated children who need to be connected, not segregated. It's a twisted critic who wants to keep African children ignorant of mainstream IT interfaces. Thank you one-laptop visionaries and a big pile of poop on all you armchair naysayers.


October 9, 2007 1:27 PM

Wrist jewelry of the elite? Fascinatingly screwy spin courtesy of Bezos, reported by Valleywag:


November 21, 2007 4:06 PM

I don't think you guys understand the basic idea behind the design of the laptop. It's not something that is dependent on the web at all. It has the capacity to be a localized resource of ideas and sharing. That's what the MESH network is all about. With a copy of whatever materials the local government wants to have on the server. Meaning the school system, the laptops can server up learning or reading about any concept. This is a great tool that will be in the hands of kids and can be used in a number of ways. Thinking that you need a cell phone to surf the internet, as being the device they want, it silly. It's not about some guy in Africa putting out spam to try to steal money from my bank account, but about all types of rich media, but especially books being issued without the price of books and the ability to author and share ideas amoung kids and teachers. This artical misses the entire point. It's not that the third would doesn't understand the design, it's that the authors of this article don't understand design and tool options and implications. I'm sold on it.

To state whether this will help or not, is another question. Your giving an expensive tool that leverages a lot of potential power to children. And a Child shall lead them, kind of concept. This could be used for any variety of purposes. Of course there is no telling what good or bad a tool can do if you give it to the developing world. I could give "ONE LATHE per child" as a tool and there would be critics and those who would say, it could become a weapon, or make weapons, be used or stolen by other groups, etc. Then of course there would be some who would look only on the rosey side.


May 19, 2008 7:12 AM

Isn't it time to revisit this issue, now that the OLPC team and XO device are undergoing major changes?
Isn't it time to call OLPC something?

I think the OLPC project was, indeed, a success. Negroponte was successful at giving exposure to the idea of low-cost laptops. The design team has succeeded in finding solutions to a number of technological issues, including Bitfrost security and Pixel Qi's screen. Pilot projects have paved the way for projects by other teams. The G1G1 program brought fairly convenient subnotebooks to technology enthusiasts in the United States. And the multiple discussions we're having about the OLPC contain a number of insightful comments about constructivist learning, constructionist teaching, the need for careful research in design projects, global inequalities, and the ways people empower themselves through the use of diverse tools.
As an education project, the OLPC worked.

But I also think the XO-1 should not, in fact, be purchased by education systems in different parts of the world.
No, I really don't think I'm being stubborn or opinionated. I just think that this part of the OLPC project may distract us from the OLPC success.
After crash testing the XO-1 for a week and looking at a broad range of issues surrounding the machine, I would say that it's a decent prototype to get people thinking about some interesting features (like ubiquitous mesh networking, journaling, and collaborative activities). But that laptop is too flawed to be the standard electronic device to make available to "children abroad," let alone forced upon them through massive government purchases.
I could expand but I feel there is too much focus on the XO-1 already.

Cellphones have been mentioned several times in comments to this post and I sincerely think there's something going on.
We need to keep an open mind, especially given the differences in how cellphones are used in diverse parts of the world.
Learners and teachers are, in fact, using cellphones in learning and teaching. For instance, cellphones are used for interactive quizzes ( Scholars at Sapporo Gakuin University and elsewhere have been using cellphones in connection with course management systems. A large part of what people throughout the world are doing with cellphones can easily be called "lifelong learning," whether or not there is a formal structure with a teacher in front of a passive classroom.
Some people do write long-form texts (including novels) on cellphones. Some cellphones are, in fact, used to read textbooks and other (in my mind more appropriate) text formats. Making a digital drawing and putting together a music score are probably doable on several cellphones: they're trivial tasks on a very basic smartphone. In fact, musicking with something like Bhajis Loops is as compatible with Papert-style constructionism as you can get. I dare say, even more so than Jean Piché's TamTam on the OLPC XO (with all due respect to Jean and his team, of course).
It seems quite clear that a device design based on cellphones should at least be taken into consideration by people interested in "the rest of the world."
Sure, some of the latest high-end smartphones can be quite costly, at retail. But even the difference between manufacturing costs for an OLPC XO-1 and an Apple iPhone is minimal. Clearly, there's an economic logic behind the fact that global cellphone penetration already reached 3.3 billion.
I'm really not a cellphone fanboy. In fact, I've only been using cellphones for a few months and they have been very basic models lent by friends and relatives. But, as an ethnographer, I can't help but notice that cellphones have a role to play, as "disruptive technology," in helping people empower themselves. Especially in those parts of the world which were of interest to the old OLPC project.
Maybe cellphone-related devices aren't the one solution to every child's needs. But what evidence do we have that laptops were, indeed, the single device type to deploy to children in as diverse parts of the world as Nigeria, Peru, and Mongolia?
So, the naïve question is: if OLPC really was an education project, why did it focus so exclusively on a single electronic device? Why not plan a complete product line? Why not write a cross-platform application layer? Why not build appropriate factories in local communities? Why not build a consortium with local projects? Yes, all these things are being done now, including by former members of the OLPC team. But they weren't part of the OLPC project. They can be potential outcomes of the OLPC project.

So, it's time to call OLPC a success. And move on.
Let's now look at other projects around the world which are helping kids learn, with or without some neat tools. Let's not lose the momentum. Let's not focus too much on the choice of an operating system or on the specific feature set the "educational technology version of the Ford T" may have. Sure, we can and probably should talk openly about these things.
But there are so many other important things to take into consideration...


July 30, 2008 8:58 AM

I think saying that this project is not about technology and is all about education is just speech. The project is about technology, and the use of it, if it weren't children don't need computers to get educated or develop creativity or curiosity. This can be done using many other strategies that don't require the use of computers at all.


July 30, 2008 9:12 AM

My final question for this topic will be: who will benefit more from OLPC? The children in developing countries or Negroponte and his sales? I think here is the measure of this project's success.

John Johny

October 7, 2009 8:19 AM

OLPC was doomed right from the beginning given the free software ideology and Redhat as the mid-wife.


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