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Another view: iPad reality versus OLPC fantasy

A few weeks ago, before Apple's formal announcement of the iPad unit (which you have undoubtedly heard and read about almost everywhere), the folks at the One Laptop Per Child foundation unveiled their latest product plan.

In brief, unlike the constantly morphing basic, inexpensive, stripped-down PC of their first promises, this latest item looks like a basic, inexpensive, stripped-down tablet computer. The media–which has breathlessly and uncritically reported nearly every OLPC pre-announcement since they stated their intention to saturate the world with these PCs–gave this latest news some attention, of course, but the iPad pre-announcement mania sucked a lot of the air from the PR room, as they say in marketing-speak.

You can argue, as I have, (“One Laptop Per Child hit by competitive reality”) that the entire OLPC effort is (pick one or more):

  • a) misguided;
  • b) fundamentally the wrong type of product for the needs of the impoverished target audience;
  • c) an attempt to assuage our high-tech guilt;
  • d) an evangelical manifestation of salvation via PC

I am not pumping the Apple product, not at all; I have no plans to get one. But there is a big difference between all the attention Apple is getting compared to the fawning coverage that the OLPC organization received, especially in its earlier years. That difference is that Apple may promise, but they also have to deliver. Sure, there may be delivery shortages early on, depending on supply and user demand, as well as early-product bugs, but they have demonstrated a fairly decent-looking, apparently functioning unit which they are making and shipping.

In contrast, the OLPC world seems to exist by promising that reality is just around the corner, and the next corner, and then next one. In the end, what they promise changes so much between inception and delivery that you don't know what you're getting. The press certainly seems infatuated with the ostensibly noble mission of OLPC, Nicholas Negroponte, and the MIT Media Lab, that's for sure.

My intention is not to bash OLPC and be done. There is absolutely a need and place for visionaries and dreamers in our technical ecosystem. But at some point, you have to decide which group you fall into: talker or doer. If you are in the second group, you have to stop talking and start delivering, which the OLPC mindset never seems to get around to doing. In their world, good intentions and feeling good about what you're doing are really what count.

The problem I have is that given all the adulation and uncritical accolades they have received, this combination of vision plus vaporware can infect our industry and become a marketing strategy used by others. That's not good. While we certainly do need the dreamers, those dreams have to become firm reality. Otherwise, we erode our credibility with the consumer, those folks we expect to spend real money to buy our physical realizations of the promises. It's a dangerous strategy to excessively laud those who think that dreams and promises are enough, and that those alone will keep us and our customers happy for the long term.♦

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