The One Laptop Per Child project has been struggling to meet the lofty expectations it set for itself a couple of years ago. India decided
not to participate in the program last year, and Nigeria and Brazil have apparently backed out of the program as well. A year ago they were expecting orders of five to ten million laptops; now they're struggling to reach 3 million orders. They're trying to jump-start things by offering Westerners a deal
: buy a laptop for a third-world child and get one for your own use. It's a smart idea, and it's a shame they didn't try this strategy from the outset. The OLPC project is essentially a tech startup (albeit a non-profit one) and they might find more success if they acted more like other tech startups: first get the product in the hands of some real customers so you can get some real-world feedback. Only after you've learned how the product performs in the real world do you start worrying about producing them in volume. For example, there are plenty of schools here in the United States that might be interested in a $200 laptop. Few American kids experience the level of poverty experienced in Nigeria, but there are certainly kids here who don't have a computer at home. If they'd started out by selling a few thousand laptops to districts—or even individual schools—here in the United States, they could have demonstrated the product's usefulness in real classrooms and gotten feedback about how the product could be improved.
Until recently, OLPC has pursued the opposite strategy, trying to sell its laptops in batches of a million to third-world governments while working to prevent individuals from buying them. Not only is it difficult to convince a poor nation to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on computers, but such a top-down approach almost guarantees they won't be used effectively because, as we've said before, simply giving kids laptops won't do much without proper support. Apparently, the OLPC project only conducted their first focus group with American kids last month, and a focus-group interview is a far cry from seeing the laptops used in a real classroom for an entire school year. So here's a suggestion: OLPC should distribute some laptops to poor kids in its own backyard, in Boston. The laptop has gotten glowing reviews from the few American kids who've gotten to try them, so distributing a few thousand laptops to poor American kids should generate additional buzz for the project. Only after they've worked out all the kinks in small-scale trials does it make sense to approach cash-strapped third-world governments and ask them to place seven-figure orders.