OLPC Learning That Ideas Are Easy, Execution Is Hard

from the competition dept

Business Week has an in-depth write-up about the One Laptop Per Child project’s first deployments in developing countries. The original plan called for building 150 million laptops by the end of 2008; it now looks like they’ll be lucky to ship a million before the end of the year. It appears that a big part of the problem is that Nicholas Negroponte and his team underestimated the support requirements for the laptops. Getting laptops into the hands of poor children is good, but it’s a lot better if the laptops come with training for teachers and support personnel on how to use them effectively. OLPC may have hoped to build a laptop that was so easy to use that little support was required, but the countries writing the checks don’t appear to have bought the argument. Nigeria, for example, backed out of a previous commitment to buy a million laptops from OLPC, opting for Intel’s Classmate PC instead. Intel’s superior support was cited as the major reason for the decision.

This highlights what was so ridiculous about Negroponte’s demand that other companies stop offering competing low-cost laptops. Negroponte deserves credit for pioneering the concept of producing cheap laptops for poor children, but coming up with the idea is, relatively speaking, the easy part. What’s far more difficult is the execution. Technical wizardry is an important part of that, to be sure, but probably even more important are the logistical details: keeping the project on time and under budget and ensuring that the shipping project has adequate support. There are a million ways for things to go wrong, which is why it’s a good to have a bunch of different organizations working on the problem in parallel. By his own admission, Negroponte is more a visionary than a strong manager, which is precisely why he should have welcomed the entry of a company with Intel’s logistical prowess into the market. It may not be as personally satisfying for him to have a for-profit company finish the job he started, but if the goal is to help poor children, then he should be happy to see them being offered more options.

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Comments on “OLPC Learning That Ideas Are Easy, Execution Is Hard”

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12 Comments
olpc idea fan says:

Nigeria's nod to intel

Sure, Negroponte isn’t the best executor of ideas. However, citing Intel’s bamboozling (or perhaps ‘lobbying’ for the more charitable) of the quite corrupt Nigerian Government as proof is not particularly convincing.

A larger execution failure is simply his design that requires large governments to pony up money for OLPC at all. It’s an idea that has great potential, but doesn’t specifically address any bullet-pointable needs. Spending millions on it seems like a hard sell to the actual governments that the OLPC project seems to be targetting.

Another execution failure is the actual design and implementation of the software interface. I have a unit from the give-one-get-one program, and the interface is far from finished. The hardware seems reliable enough, but the actual software O/S is, well, it’s like living in a framed house with no hung drywall. You can *see* how things are going to work, but they’re definitely not there yet. They leveraged Fedora to a great extent, but could have done more to make their distribution as polished in hardware and software integration as fedora is.

I also agree that disparaging large commercial companies’ entrances into the space is also poor execution. There have to be ideas and processes that could be fruitfully shared to accomplish the goal of mass-availability of low-cost, low-powered, highly usable laptops in the hands of the world’s children.

Also take into account the various high-level staff departures, and it seems clear that Negroponte and the team he’s assembled are having a tough time executing at the level they’d like to.

However, whether or not Nigeria decided to buy the OLPC seems orthogonal to any judgement about the man’s ability to execute on his ideas.

zcat (profile) says:

misguided visionary..?

He created something every first-world geek wanted, then wouldn’t sell it to them.

By not selling it, he failed to create a community of more technically oriented first-world OLPC owners who could then have provided free support to teachers and administrators in third-world countries via IRC or community discussion boards.

And to top it all off he took something that was just beginning to look like a showcase of the true potential of open source, and decided to run Windows on it.

Wow. Great idea. Tragic management of it.

Jon (user link) says:

As said before...

From the comment The Realities of Technology in the Third World on Techdirt: ‘Give One Get One’ Is a Hit, So OLPC Wants To Kill It:

Bottom-line: OLPC is doing a lot of things right (low maintenance machines, rugged, cheap), but there are still a lot of systemic issues that need to be addressed before the computers will actually help people (other than making donors get the warm fuzzies). The computers need to come with trained people. The need to be cheaper/free (governments spend so little per child now, you think they’re going to cough up more for computers AND actually give them to the students? Who’s going to stop adults from stealing them?) The education systems need to be at least marginally successful before computer aided learning becomes viable.

Jake says:

To be honest, at this point we’re probably better off putting out money behind one full set of textbooks per child, one full set of stationery per child and one competent teacher for every twenty-five children. Exercise books and pencils do not require batteries or skilled maintenance, and in any case computers are of secondary importance in primary education.

Ima Professor says:

training is for monkeys

I can see why there is such a strong emphasis on training in the developed world. Its years of conditioning that without training, you can’t be productive. “Figuring out” is a skill set that is sorely lacking in the US and other “developed” nations. The reason is simple. We have an oversupply of consumables. Why bother with thinking for ourselves when we have large gorillas who can think for us?

There was a time when the US did figure things out, but that was in the late 1700’s. And we came up with a terrific solution – a nation born of ideas, freedom, and intelligence. Now, we have become a canned society, complete with soggy fruit in syrup and preservative. We need instructions for every thing. So, when we come across an attempt to jumpstart thinking from within the being, the masses cry out. Noooooo!!! We need training. What a shame. The lame politicians who decry such attempts are perhaps one of the most illiterate when it comes to technology. In fact, you don’t have to go far. Look in our own Congress. You’ll find a few Luddites. Yet, these are the same people who are tasked with deciding the future of technology implementation and use. Of course they’ll ask for training. Monkeys don’t jump through hoops by instinct!

Try leaving your house one morning without instructions. Investigate. Figure things out. Get on a bus and spend some time seeing out the window. Life is interesting. Don’t insult it by asking for a manual.

Jake says:

Re: training is for monkeys

I see your point up to a certain extent, but there is generally a finite number of ways to perform a great many tasks -operating and maintaining a computer being one of them- and it saves a great deal of wasted effort to have someone explain them to you before you start doing it, especially when getting it wrong has the potential for unpleasant consequences. There is a time and a place for learning by trial and error, but any situation where getting it wrong might mean expensive equipment getting wrecked or people being injured isn’t it.

Abdul says:

Problems are Meant to be Overcome!!!

I don’t think we should be too quick to decry the OLPC approach. Now that these problems have surface, it’s time to find solutions to them. Problems are meant ot be solve and i could only hope they modify their strategies to ensure that OLPC bear sustainable fruits: The Internet And Developing Countries ( : http://www.internetevolution.com/document.asp?doc_id=143698&F_src=flftwo)

John Wilson (profile) says:

Negroponte failed in so many ways...

As Tim noted he’s a hell of an idea guy and a hell of a visionary. Beyond that, if the OLPC debacel is any indication he’s not much more.

So, other than a pointless battle with Intel, just where is OLPC today?

Most of the developers have bolted elsewhere to finish what they started on other ULPCs including the Intel model.

The hardware types who made the mesh possible also appear to have bolted.

In neither case was the leave taking particularly friendly.

What’s left of OLPC will ship with a stripped down form of XP which may or may not use the mesh networking so vital to it’s success in rural third world areas. And other than an, imperfect Sugar, it will ship with canned Windows based education tools far more suitable to North America or Europe than, say, Angloa.

Not that this is the first time Negroponte has ended up here with an essentially good idea. Roughly the same thing happened when he partnered with the past Secretary-General of the UN on a similar product and ended up with warehouses full of laptops in Senegal with no way to ship them.

One of the definitions of insanity is “Doing things the same way over and over again, expecting different results”.

ttfn

John

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