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One Laptop Per Child: Failure is not an Option

The news that the XO Laptop developed by the One Laptop Per Child foundation is launching a buy-one-get-one sale to encourage first world consumers to help fund laptops for children in developing countries has spawned an eager chorus of nay-sayers quick to label the project a failure.

"The design was too top down!" They’re saying. "Not market-tested with kids in the countries it was intended for!" "Better they should have cell-phones!"

Tell that to the kid in Nigeria who told OLPC founder Nick Negroponte that he "valued his laptop more than his life." Or the one who refused to give his broken laptop back to be repaired for fear he’d never see it again.

"Kids love these laptops," Negroponte told me when I was reporting the story on Yves Behar, the XO computer’s designer, for our October issue. "They know instinctively that the machine is for them."

Sure, the project’s had a hard time getting off the ground. There was the chip war (now resolved) with Intel. There were bumps in the design process that slowed things down. There were gnarly cost issues. There were, and still are, heads of state in developing countries who talk a good game about bettering the lives of their people and don’t follow through. That’s news? Anybody who’s shocked by that little factoid hasn’t been paying attention to decades of corruption and self-interest in developing countries (and, of course, developed ones as well) that makes serving the needs of the people secondary to living like a pharaoh .

Fuseproject’s Behar disputes the idea that this project was a first world vanity "gift" to the third world designed with little thought for what folks in that part of the world really needed. If anything, he says, the fact that it was slow to get off the ground made the design even better than it might have been had the deals been sealed quickly. "We used the longer gestation period for a longer test," he said, noting that the laptop had been deployed to over 1000 kids in Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay as well as sub-Saharan Africa. "It allowed us to refine and improve on the project in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to do with a corporate project. The project is mature and solid now, which puts it in a better place to go through the political testing process."

As Behar travels the globe talking about the machine, he says the response has been universal: invariably he’s bombarded with questions and emails from his First World audiences about where they can get one of the machines for their own kids.

And why would folks who could buy any Dell or HP laptop for their kids want one of these low-budget devices? For one thing, because they’re the first laptops ever designed specifically with a kid in mind. Every design problem was prefaced with the question, "Is this what kids want?" Behar says. "That’s not a question I’ve ever heard in any technology I’ve been asked to design," he says.

The device’s anthropomorphic design, with its rabbity little wi-fi ‘ears’ and rugged green and white case, is nearly irresistible. At last spring’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair, people were swarming the thing. And these were adults.

"Every kid I have observed playing with it, in San Francisco, Switzerland, Italy, has loved the OLPC, and has stayed on it for hours," Behar says. "Actually, they have used it more than my Apple laptop by far."

The thing is rugged, impervious to sand and dirt, outfitted with a tablet for drawing or writing, equipped with video conferencing capabilities, and designed to be read in bright sunlight. It withstands a drop test of four feet, instead of the industry standard two.

And the complaint that the OLPC offers "limited processing power?" Red herring, Behar says.

"Processing power is only needed for overstuffed and overblown programs," he says. " The OLPC programs run faster than my iphone for sure, because they are designed lighter and efficiently. Processing power is just another IT industry trick to justify over-complexity and over-pricing and planned-obsolescence." Mind you, this is a guy who has designed some of those machines.

But there’s no denying that Negroponte has his work cut out for him. Maybe the Buy-one-get-one offer really will provide the ignition this project needs to get off the ground. If nothing else, it’s a pretty cheap way to teach an affluent American or Canadian kid not just about computers but about kids half way around the world who can’t afford textbooks, paper, or even electricity, let alone the season’s latest tech gadget.

Cynicism is easy. Hope is harder. Here’s to the OLPC team and its vision. May you have the satisfaction of proving all these critics wrong, and making the world a better place in the process.

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