January 28, 2008

OLPC's Fatal Flaw

I have a lot of admiration for Nicholas Negroponte and the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) team. By in large, they got the technology right. They brought the right partners together and created an unbelievable product. The technological advances that are found in the $100 (OK, $300) laptop will certainly impact the way computers are built tomorrow.

OLPC has not had the expected success. There is nothing technically wrong with it. The pricing is reasonable. So why hasn't the laptop caught on in the developing world it was designed for?

The name says it all: ONE laptop PER child. The idea might be appealing to the western world but it is not a cultural fit for the developing world, or at least Africa where I am blogging from. Africans are very communal in nature. Outside of the wealthy elite that is not the target of the OLPC anyway, Africans don't individually own things, especially not children. Whoever has a radio or a television shares it with not just the immediate family, but the entire community. One never watches TV alone and one does not sit in a corner and read alone or get on a computer alone. People still do things together. Not because they are forced to but because that is the way they prefer it.

How do you reconcile this communal culture with the OLPC technology? Probably through a new approach. As well intended as the project sponsors are, I simply cannot imagine any African politician buying into the idea in any meaningful way. It is one of those things that are difficult to explain. Kind of like explaining to a white person what is it like to be black. You can't really put it into words.

Maybe they could rename it "laptops for all" and set them up for multiple users. Maybe they could change the target from children to families. It might not sound very politically correct but a business owner could leverage the technology a lot more and turn the laptop into increased revenue. By keeping track of inventory, accounting, communicating with customers and vendors electronically, the businessperson would use it in the day and his/her kids could use it in the evening. You could then have the government partially subsidize the computer and set up a loan through credit union or other micro-credit institution to finance the rest. Then you would have "One Laptop per Family" which is more in tune with our culture.... and, because it is contributing to economic growth, would be more sustaining long term.


  1. i think thats a good point there but i think the main failure is more to do with exposure. more like this, the OLPC is targeted in rural areas and the only way for it to be successful is for it to be made available in schools by the government. forget subsidising them in rural areas cauz they will not sell, maybe subsidising in town schools. the reason is our rural parents just wont spend their hard earned money on something that there dont really know what its about.... they have never used it in their life. computer literacy can become successful because this generation has used computers and when they in turn get older will buy or contribute to purchase of computers/OLPC for their kids or younger simblings!!! again .... the first step is to have them available at school by government!!

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