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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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February012008

Dude, Where’s My Laptop?

Last November, MIT’s One Laptop Per Child program (OLPC) launched an initiative that would allow individuals to purchase their very own XO laptop - better known as the $100 laptop - while making a donation so that another laptop would be given to a child in the developing world. Tens of thousands of people donated, only to find their orders botched. The PR fiasco has shaken the confidence of many people who were enthusiastic about the laptop program - including my own.

It all began in October when OLPC announced XO Giving, a charitable program that would serve as the first chance for most people to get their hands on one of the laptops. Prior to that, OLPC had been negotiating mostly with national governments to sell the durable, youth-targeted laptops to their ministries of education in large purchase orders, typically one million units or more. While the plan attracted some initial interest, other governments balked at the idea. Meanwhile, educators and technology enthusiasts in the US questioned why they weren’t able to able to purchase their own laptops for classroom use.

XO Giving was intended to be the solution to the matter. By donating $400 to OLPC, a person would receive their own XO laptop, while a second one would be given to a child in the developing world. OLPC began taking orders in mid-November. They made it clear that most people would probably not receive their laptop in time for Christmas, but they would try to accommodate those who ordered on the very first day of the program.

Some lucky donors managed to receive their laptops in time for the holidays, but others, including myself, receive cryptic emails saying that the address we supplied for shipping was incorrect, and that we would have to submit a new address for a January delivery. On bulletin boards, discussion lists and Twitter, people grumbled but were generally forgiving.

But that was just the beginning of the problem. As reported by Ars Technica recently, the software used by OLPC’s fulfillment contractor had a glitch that caused perfectly correct addressed to appear incorrect, preventing FedEx from shipping the laptops. Making matters worse, when donors re-submitted their address or supplied a new one, the glitch would overwrite the new information and again supply FedEx with a nonexistent address. Moreover, they were unable to ship to PO Boxes - a fact that was never communicated to donors before they ordered.

While a group of volunteers began to document the potential causes of the delivery mess on a wiki, OLPCNews.com established a forum where users could vent their own experiences with the ordering process. The posts are filled with people who were clearly supporters of the initiative but now are questioning its competence, like this one, entitled Joke of the Year:

I’ve always been a supporter of programs that are aimed to eradicate poverty and help the poor. I’ve traveled extensively and lived in Africa and I grew up in China. While I was living in Ethiopia, I took up in the annual 10km run and raised $400 for the UNICEF.

Now I’m just very surprised by the lack of human touch of OLPC foundation. I’m not frustrated because I’m still very patient and hoping it will arrive one day. But this email reply from their support team is leaving me disappointed.

Please note that this reply from the support team was dated “Jan 17, 2008 2:29 PM”:

“We currently show that your laptop has been sent to the warehouse for shipping. You will be receiving an email notifying you when the laptop has been shipped along with a tracking number. If you live within the United States, you should receive your laptop no later than January 15, 2008. If you live in Canada, you should receive your laptop in the January/February 2008 timeframe.”

Their experiences mirror my own. While I was expecting delays, I was amazed and dismayed by the sheer disorganization of their customer service. At various points I received emails saying my order was shipping around or after December 20, December 26, January 15, and February 15. Just last week, I received competing emails from them, one saying my order had been fixed and ready for delivery, followed by another saying the opposite.

Now, I know that OLPC was never set up to have the customer service of a major PC distributor, and the rush of orders in November was going to lead to some snafus. But the fiasco raises some bigger questions as well. Critics of the program have expressed concern that once XO laptops were in the field, there would be no way to service them in a coordinated fashion if something broke. Others worried that massive purchase orders done through ministries of education wouldn’t necessarily lead to the laptops getting in the hands of the kids who needed them most.

For myself, I thought about these concerns, too, but always felt that it was a worthwhile experiment. Let’s just get these laptops out there and see what happens. But having gone through what has been one of the worst customer service experiences of my life with the XO Giving program, I can’t stop asking myself. If they can’t manage the distribution of laptops to tens of thousands of US customers, how are they going to manage the distribution of millions of them to people in the developing world?

Stay tuned for a review of the XO laptop later this month. Assuming I receive it then. -andy

Filed under : Cool Tools, Digital Divide

Responses

Andy, I’m sharing your experience — waiting for mine to arrive. (Admittedly, I didn’t buy in until after Christmas — when they extended the G1G1 offer.) And I am frustrated with the opacity of the order process for us individual G1G1 participants.

But I do believe that it is easier to send these things in large shipments to one place than it is to handle piecemeal orders, where every machine is going to a unique address. I wish that OLPC had the foresight to have seen this too, but I’m not sure there’s an apples-to-apples comparison to be made in assessing their domestic donor delivery and developing world deployment abilities.

I’m sympathetic and I’d be writing a similar post if my order were botched but I don’t think that it’s fair to judge the competency of the project or the vision for giving kids learning machines with their ability to execute on individual orders—and maybe a premature decision to do a “Give One Get One” program before solid systems were in place. I hope that the PR fiasco around an effort to deliver laptops to the developed world doesn’t derail a worthy effort to get them to parts of the world that will benefit from the project.

I hope you’re right, Ted. And like Matthew said, intl distribution isn’t necessarily the same as domestic distribution for consumers. Obviously, there will be different mechanisms in place for that. But let’s face it - this was supposed to be OLPC’s big coming-out party for the US market, a time when they could get their supporters even more eager to promote their initiative. Instead, a lot of those same supporters are feeling burned, even disillusioned, and OLPC will have some work to do to earn their respect back.

I purchased one of these with no hiccups in the process and after playing with it for a week or so, sold it on eBay to some guy in the UK for more than $30 more than I paid for it. Glad I sold it when I did as I really didn’t have a use for it.

I, too, ordered and paid for it on November 13, 2007 and have yet to receive it and have not received anything from them. I was surprised to see the offer extended when they couldn’t fill the orders they had received. We’ll see but I’m not holding my breath and feel that my money is gone.

And since it is through PayPal, we have no recourse. I have learned a painful, expensive lesson.

I ordered mid-November. Arrived between Christmas and New Year’s - no problem. Students in my elementary school love it (more than our Dell laptops). I’ve located a couple more among colleagues in my district and we are going to “mesh” one afternoon at Starbucks.

I, too, waited a long time for mine to arrive. In fact I had given up in late December and began to send emails to cancel my order. These emails were responded to by an auto responder, promising a real response within 24 hours.

Finally the computer arrived… about a week ago, and since then I have been trying to perform some tasks to get it working properly here at home.

• It will not connect to my Apple Airport Extreme without turning off security. (It does not connect to WPA)
• The build is old and needs updated.
• Following the steps to update, I was stopped because I did not have a developer key.
• I requested one and got it a day later (good, on time as they said) but could not install it.
• The update program was out of date and have been unable to get a new one as after downloading for over 2 hours and getting to the last stage, the computer has no space.

When I was on the net (no security on Extreme), I could not use the Starfall site - for my grand daughter - as the version of Flash is not consistent.

Reading the various wikis with all the terminal text to enter for this that and the other, I’m reminded of why I like my Mac and its graphic interface so much - yes, I have been computing since the 70s and am not a stranger to entering in the command line.

All in all a pretty awkward start. I’m now probably going to reset to factory settings and see if I can start this process over.

Having fun in Gibsons, BC…. Bob

Andy,

Teaching">http://www.teachingmatters.org">Teaching Matters has begun an initiative using the XO machines in a small public middle school in Harlem, KAPPA IV as part of our effort to improve student writing through technology. We gave out machines to students for the first time on Friday.

I know people are frustrated (with good reason), but the big news is in the potential of these machines to change education. Check out some photos and first impressions from our project blog: http://olpcnyc.wordpress.com. There is also some useful information about installing Flash, etc., which may address some readers’ concerns.

Keep in mind, OLPC is run by a really small group of people. They are doing the best they can. As Negroponte has said himself, comparing OLPC to a for-profit PC company is like comparing the World Food Organization to McDonald’s.

As luck would have it, OLPC is as good at getting a FULL refund processed as it was at getting the money out of my account in the first place. At everything else in between, OLPC was as inept as it was arrogant, infuriating, and insulting.

Incidentally, I was a first day and 15th day donor who didn’t request the refund until January 30, long after PayPal’s cutoff for a refund and before I tried to go through my credit card. There was one email that tried to tell me all I wanted back was from them was the value of the laptops I never received. I responded forcefully and promptly that I didn’t want them to have a penny from me and the next thing I knew, my PayPal account had the full $847 plus that I had given OLPC back in November.

If the people behind OLPC are truly doing the best they can, they should look for a new line of work where their best is considered adequate.

When I originally ordered, I asked if I could donate the second computer along with the first one. I really didn’t want or need an OLPC machine. After a bit of confusion, I managed to get hold of a service person who processed my request. Then, a few weeks later, I received a phone call asking me about a shipping address. No computer has shown up on my doorstep (for which I’m thankful), but likewise, I’ve had no acknowledgement that my request was processed and computers shipped to the intended recipients. Like you Andy, my original intent was to help make this seedling project possible, realizing that the consequences would be unpredictable and perhaps unintended. Still, after all the negative publicity, I would like some assurance from OLPC folks that the project is ineed viable and moving forward.

Andy,

Had I know you were still waiting, I would’ve lent you mine while I was on my honeymoon these last two weeks. As it is, I now need mine for two meetups I’m attending in the Pacific NW

If yours still hasn’t arrived by Feb 23, please let me know, I’ll lend you mine till yours arrives. I already lent another through a contest on the OLPC News Forum.

Thanks, Wayan, that’s very generous of you. Let’s see what happens over the next few days, but I may take you up on that offer….

sigh

Different story, same effect. Let’s add FedEx to this mess. They claim they delivered it. Four days later I get the email saying it’s on the way. I work at home all day, every day, and there was no FedEx delivery to my door. They delivered to the wrong address, and, likely, someone stole it since no one was actively living at the address where it likely ended up.

So, mine probably got sold through eBay, and I’m struggling with an organization that’s not prepared to make claims against FedEx — it took two months to get the claim started.

I’m still waiting. I hope the children who were supposed to benefit from this aren’t.

Anyone have any information on the donation deliveries??

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