The Battle for the Soul of OLPC: Learning vs. Laptops

   
   
   
   
   

Walter Bender's departure has marked a new evolution of the One laptop Per Child program. The battle for the very soul of OLPC is now out in the open with two distinct groups forming:


One laptop, two ideas
  1. Walter Bender will be leading a one laptop per child global education movement focused on constructionism, as personified through Sugar, the Open Source user interface developed specifically for children.
  2. Nicholas Negroponte will be leading a One Laptop Per Child laptop project focused on expanding XO sales worldwide, using whatever means necessary to achieve that.
We've all felt this dichotomy from the beginning, but only now are we really seeing the split, and its leaders emerge. I noticed the early signs when I read Walter Bender's last wiki posts on OLPC's success metrics:
This requires consensus on what is customer success. More laptop orders? Children learning? If OLPC were a for-profit enterprise, one could argue that the customer is always right. Where does one draw the line? I thought the mission was learning, not selling laptops.
At the time, these comments suggested that Walter was growing disillusioned with a shift to a laptop sales priority. But with his resignation letter's focus on Open Source fresh in my memory, I read Brian Bergstein's report on the situation and I see a larger departure:
[Walter] Bender already has new plans: to launch an independent effort to further the development of the XOs' homegrown software, known as Sugar, and get it to run on Linux computers other than XOs. "Sugar is in a narrow place and it is ripe to be unleashed," he wrote in an e-mail exchange.
Unleashing Sugar onto the Classmate PC for example, so that soon, the entire 4P Computing space could utilize constructionist learning methodologies to expand education in the developing world. But that's not the focus of Nicholas Negroponte. In the very same article, he discredits the Open Source community's contributions to OLPC as a hindrance to his goal, XO laptop sales:
Negroponte said he was mainly concerned with putting as many laptops as possible in children's hands. He lamented that an overriding insistence on open-source had hampered the XOs, saying Sugar "grew amorphously" and "didn't have a software architect who did it in a crisp way." For instance, the laptops do not support Flash animation, widely used on the Web.

"There are several examples like that, that we have to address without worrying about the fundamentalism in some of the open-source community," he said. "One can be an open-source advocate without being an open-source fundamentalist."

olpc windows xo
If it sells more XO's...
Worse, from my perspective as a pragmatic Open Source advocate who believes that Sugar is the educational aspect to the XO laptop, and without it, OLPC becomes just another 4PC vender, Negroponte offered windows on his aspirations for the XO OS:
As a result, Negroponte said Tuesday that he expects XOs to soon have a "dual-boot" option, meaning users would be able to run Windows or Sugar. One current hang-up is whether the necessary hardware would add $7 to $12 to an XO's cost, taking the project even further away from its eventual goal of producing the machines for less than $100.

Eventually, Negroponte added, Windows might be the sole operating system, and Sugar would be educational software running on top of it.

And here you thought that Windows XO was only an April Fools joke. What is no joke is the real split that's happening right now inside the greater OLPC community.

I believe that soon the vibrant FOSS developer community will be much smaller yet more focused on Sugar as an education tool for any computing platform, just optimized for the XO. OLPC, the formal organization, will still be relevant, just somewhere the level of Asus or Classmate OEM's - interesting as a targeted 4PC platform, but not worth the hype of a game-changing market maker.

Update: Check out the Developer List debate if you want to watch the split happen in real time.

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11 Comments

I think Carl-Daniel Hailfinger has explained Nicholas Negroponte's shift the best so far. From the Developer list:

"Giving laptops to children is not an education project, it's giving laptops to children."
http://lists.laptop.org/pipermail/devel/2008-April/013058.html

NN says he want to sale the XO but his actions proves otherwise. The church of Christ wants to purchase 150 to use in various places in developing countries.
They refuse to sell them to us. 22 are already spoken for and I have told only 8 people that I am trying to buy them.

"Sugar...didn't have a software architect who did it in a crisp way."

XP did?

Regarding the "Battle", the hardware was almost all done by Mary Lou Jepsen, software under Walter Bender and security by Ivan Krstić.

Doesn't look like much left for Negroponte.

Perhaps Jepsen, Bender, and Krstić will reform as a group?

Is this the same Microsoft that left IE without any update because there was no revenue from that and only started working on it when it faced real threat from Firefox?

For once I hope you're wrong in your prophecy, Wayan :-) , and that it's not as simple as that, but that there's a third team, that will know how to collaborate with the other two, formed by those of sound educational principles, and as its leader the desire to serve others. For all I respect Walter and his accomplishment, I feel OLPC's marriage to constructionism/vism has nowhere to go. Likewise NN trying to raise demand for something that is basically not available for love or money, because production is not keeping up with demand. Negroponte has done great things, and I hope to sing a pean to that eventually. If nothing less, this is the only ICT4D project that has half a chance to make it, because good ol' Nick managed to get the media and potentates to listen. That the World Bank in an unusual sign of restraint will not pay for XOs is merely a sign of a fact that OLPC, as is, cannot be taken as seriously with content-free constructionism as it would with content and distribution models that respond to parent and teacher expectations, and I am not talking Windows, but merely ESL, Math, Language Arts... An XO thus loaded, that you could actually buy rather than beg some deity, would really, really amaze us all.

One Laptop Per Child seems need longer time, doesn't it?

Wayan,

"We've all felt this dichotomy from the beginning, but only now are we really seeing the split, and its leaders emerge. I noticed the early signs when I read Walter Bender's last wiki posts on OLPC's success metrics:

' This requires consensus on what is customer success. More laptop orders? Children learning? If OLPC were a for-profit enterprise, one could argue that the customer is always right. Where does one draw the line? I thought the mission was learning, not selling laptops.'
"

Eh, you've made it as if the Walter's comments were in response to Negroponte's - in fact they weren't. Just responding to one of the users [1]. As to the 'dichotomy' - sure they must disagree on many things but not the one you alleged - Walter has stated more than a year ago that he supports OLPC being open platform. He reiterated this just yesterday[2]:

"Second, regarding Microsoft, I agree that if it is to be an open platform, it should be open to everyone, including Microsoft."


As to Brian Bergstein's 'report' [3] - funny you should quote him as he seem to be relying on you for info in return :). What's missing are the real quotes with real and confirmed sources...


[1] User:Mstone/August planning
( http://wiki.laptop.org/index.php?title=User:Mstone/August_planning&diff=prev&oldid=126312 )

[2] OLPC dev list, thread: Walter leaving and shift to XP.
( http://lists.laptop.org/pipermail/devel/2008-April/013067.html )

[3] AP, Low-cost laptop program sees a key leadership defection
( http://www.thestate.com/technology-wire/story/383365.html )

This is not about Windows on the XO or Constructivism or different "visions". This is, quite simply, the house of cards coming apart. The rats abandoning a sinking ship. The sponsorship money no longer coming in.

Jepsen, Krstic and now Walter Bender realize that Negroponte holds a losing hand, so they don't want to be associated with the death of OLPC.

In a way, it makes sense...

Or maybe the computer is not selling because the software is not very good! I think everyone agrees that the hardware is excellent. I won't list all of the innovative hardware features here, but I would like to talk about the software. :)

The journal, while a nice concept for letting parents know what their kids did during the day, is not a good way to locate documents and bookmarks. I think that there is a reason why Web browsers let users change home pages, bookmark pages, and customize other settings.

And there is a reason why hierarchical file systems are so popular. I find it hard to find any documents that are stored on my XO. Should it really be as hard as it is to play a music file?

How about Flash and Shockwave support? Providing good support for Flash and Shockwave would open up a whole world of educational programs for English-speaking students at least. The mesh communications features seem innovative, but it's too bad that the software has other major shortcomings.

Sometimes, when you see something like the single-row of icons in Sugar that it's difficult to scroll and that do not show a text description of what the program is until you mouse over it, you have to think, who came up with this? Did they ask anyone what they thought of it? Did they ever envision that would be more than a few programs available for the machine?

I truly think that the machine would have been more appealing to governments if it did not have such an unusual interface.

I see no problem with having a "dichotomy" between OLPC as a laptop project and OLPC as an education project. Even if all I cared about was the education side, I would still encourage OLPC wholeheartedly to sell laptops with similar hardware but without the educational focus, in order to grow the market.

This whole thing rests on economy of scale. If they can't sell several million units, then they can't reach their $100 price target and that hurts OLPC as an educational project. So I think they should do whatever they can to move units, and use the excess revenue (the non-profit profit) from hardware sales to fund educational software development.

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