In his first detailed interview since leaving One Laptop Per Child, Walter Bender expanded on why he left OLPC and what his plans are for Sugar in a conversation with Wade Roush of Xconomy.
To Walter, Microsoft Windows is not really the issue; it's the opportunity to educate the world on what education can be. Just listen to what he feels is Nicholas Negroponte's change in direction:
Bender:: Then it's a matter of what's next. And what's next for me is to continue to work on the software tools for learning - to broaden their scope and applicability. What's next for OLPC? I would rather OLPC answer for themselves.For me, personally, that's exactly why I've followed OLPC so closely for the last two years - it represented a disruptive shift in the whole technology industry and its relationship to the developing world.
Nicholas has made it clear, at least to me, that OLPC needs to be strategically agnostic about learning - that it can't be prescriptive about learning. So that's his opinion and that's where he's taking OLPC, and that's not what I want to do, so I left.
Xconomy: When you say "agnostic about learning," what I take that to mean is that there's a feeling that the XO Laptop should run Windows, and not just Linux and Sugar.
Bender: I think it's pretty obvious and was obvious from the very beginning that it's a lot easier to cater to people's comfort than to be disruptive. Nicholas had that wonderful quote in BusinessWeek about a month ago - that OLPC is going to stop acting like a terrorist and start emulating Microsoft.
If you read between the lines, the idea is to stop trying to be disruptive and to start trying to make things comfortable for decision-makers. And that's a marketing strategy, and one that I think has been adopted by many laptop manufacturers.
Personally, I think that the customer is not always right, and that a role that a non-profit can play is to try to demonstrate better ways of doing things and let the market follow them. But that is a minority opinion, so I left to do my own thing.
A Game-Changing Opportunity
OLPC presented us with a whole new way to think about education in the developing world: Constructionism personified as an Open Source educational software stack running on a rugged, efficient and affordable laptop. While we all may not agree on exactly how to achieve that goal, the very idea was revolutionary.
Many of us invested our hearts and minds into OLPC because it was an Open Source software project. Here was the chance to wean entire countries off the thought that proprietary business software is appropriate for every situation.
Others got excited that the hardware was designed specifically for poor communities where electricity and air conditioning are rare. No more expensive generators spewing exhaust to support overbuilt and then fan-cooled processors.
Put those two ideas together in a nonprofit education project and you have a global movement that actually delivered a Sugar/Linux software stack on the XO laptop - a targeted learning combination that is specifically designed to do one thing and one thing well: educate children in resource poor environments.
Being agnostic isn't disruptive
Walter is right about Windows XP on the XO laptop. It isn't disruptive. It makes the XO a rugged general purpose computer, one use case of which could be education. Sugar on other platforms is a great addition to those distributions. But alone, it isn't disruptive either.
The real prescription for change, the idea that had us all foaming with tech-lust, was the combination of education-specific Open Source software running on clock-stopping hot technology to empower education in the developing world. To change any part of that equation this late in the game represents a fundamental shift in the project and is alienating all of us who wanted to be part of a disruptive movement.
Windows XP on the XO can be educational, and Sugar on other platforms is beneficial, but neither alone is the OLPC we signed up for.
OLPC, the movement
On the bright side, no matter what Dark Side that Nicholas Negroponte turns to, Ivan Krstić is right:
Perhaps most of all, remember that OLPC is not just a company, but also an eponymous movement. We owe Nicholas a collective debt of gratitude for starting it, but good movements are far larger than their leaders.So true, Ivan, so true.
Richard Stallman started the free software movement and helped it get on its feet, but the movement now has a life of its own — one most assuredly not beholden to Stallman’s opinions and proclamations. The One Laptop per Child movement is no different.
Nicholas and Walter made people care about using technology to help education in the developing world on a global scale, and forced the industry’s hand on catering to that market despite the razor-thin margins it promises. That was noble and revolutionary of them, but the genie is now out of the bottle and taking on a life of its own.