“One Laptop Per Child”: a great solution to the wrong problem

Do you remember the “One Laptop Per Child” project? The PR event made a huge splash back in 2005, and I remember being really impressed and inspired. As it turns out, OLPC is a textbook example of what happens when an organization has a sincere desire to solve a problem that they simply don’t understand.

Adi Robertson, writing for The Verge, has an excellent history of the project called OLPC’s $100 laptop was going to change the world — then it all went wrong. It starts with this anecdote:

Then, Negroponte and Annan rose for a photo-op with two OLPC laptops, and reporters urged them to demonstrate the machines’ distinctive cranks. Annan’s crank handle fell off almost immediately. As he quietly reattached it, Negroponte managed half a turn before hitting the flat surface of the table. He awkwardly raised the laptop a few inches, trying to make space for a full rotation. “Maybe afterwards…” he trailed off, before sitting back down to field questions from the crowd. […]

If you remember the OLPC at all, you probably remember the hand crank. It was OLPC’s most striking technological innovation — and it was pure vaporware. Designers dropped the feature almost immediately after Negroponte’s announcement, because the winding process put stress on the laptop’s body and demanded energy that kids in very poor areas couldn’t spare. Every OLPC computer shipped with a standard power adapter.

As you read deeper, it becomes clear that they were working on a solution that didn’t take local issues into account at all:

Bender thinks OLPC might have struck more deals if it had focused less on technical efficiency. “Every conversation we ever had with any head of state — every time — they said, ‘Can we build the laptop in our country?’” he says. “We knew that by making the laptop in Shanghai, we could build the laptop [to be] much less expensive. And what we didn’t realize was that the price wasn’t what they were asking us about. They were asking us about pride, not price. They were asking us about control and ownership of the project.”

To put it another way:

OLPC had created a computer that could withstand dust and drops, but it hadn’t accounted for political messiness.

There are many lessons to learn from this story, but most important is almost certainly that a desire to do something good isn’t enough to make a product successful. If you don’t fully understand the problem you’re solving and the people you’re solving it for, your chances of success are incredibly low.