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