Support Volunteer Frustrations with OLPC Leadership

   
   
   
   
   

100% of OLPC's support infrastructure is volunteer-based, and OLPC deliberately keeps them in the dark about everything. Dozens of support volunteers have dropped out because the support crew is expected to handle basically all of the public relations, even though they don't know anything and aren't authorized to speak for OLPC.

gabe olpc
No Support Gang happiness here

Bug reports get marked invalid if they're not filed by an OLPC insider. QA is backlogged by about six months, and doesn't have a testing regimen in place anyway, and probably never will because it's run by the same pack of in-the-dark volunteers who valiantly try to provide end-user support.

Sugar sucks because nobody bothers to fix it; they just identify one or two problem areas a year and completely rewrite everything. The stylus part of the touchpad has never worked. They never addressed the stuck-keys problem. Spare parts are expensive and hard to acquire. Serious, crippling wifi problems have gone unresolved for years (in many cases, even untriaged) while they focus on supporting CD-ROM booting for Windows.

The Windows-centric BIOS emulation routines are closed-source and under tight NDA. OLPC has an undisclosed number of NDAs with Microsoft, Marvell, Quanta, and other companies. They ignore offers of help from major open-source figures, and then complain about how long it takes to develop software.

They ship the things locked-down security-wise and expect users to manually enter things into a website and wait days for permission to install other operating systems. The rationale for that last bit is "the G1G1 users are our test bed."

Hundreds of e-mails from people willing to help go unanswered and are eventually deleted because OLPC fundamentally doesn't give a damn about anyone who isn't a direct employee of the company. The Give Many program never took off because (again) nobody at OLPC gives a crap.

gabe olpc
Cut the crap, OLPC

The last handful of companies that Chuck Kane ran were all sold off or put under soon after he took the reins. Kane explicitly dropped the education mission of OLPC, and claimed it was now basically about distributing laptops and to hell with what is done with them.

Regardless, OLPC (in keeping with Negroponte's amazing hubris) will only deal with national governments, and the few programs that are getting the machines into the hands of whatever schools want them.

Basically, Negroponte started out with a great idea, then made every possible wrong decision and turned it into a steaming pile of failure, and it's pretty damn depressing. Nick Negroponte killed the One Laptop Per Child movement.

This article appeared on OLPC Columbia listserv and appears here intact, just re-ordered for clarity.

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16 Comments

it's really a shame. As much as I'd like to support OLPC, the program seems to be such a clusterflock where learning and sugar usability seem to take a backseat. And buying machines without having a learning strategy is tremendous waste of money.

I've basically given up supporting OLPC since they care so little about learning.

Basically it is not the laptop that is at fault. It is good as a cheap laptop for the poor. But to impose 1 laptop per child in a poor country when even developed countries do not do, is a bit too ambistious.

Nothing in this world is free and expect a massive project based on volunteers will surely result in this state of affairs.

At the end of the day, you still need professional to get things done.

I find the tone of this article hurtful, and factually incorrect. Often issues get turned into us-vs-them, and they really don't need to be.

If bugs are marked invalid, there's probably a good reason for it. I don't know anyone at OLPC who has a grudge against the community that they want to work out by doing trac work. Really. That's just insane.

Sugar doesn't suck because the developers "don't bother to fix it"; it sucks because it was insanely ambitious and written without a sane management plan to get from point A to point B. So we get A-and-a-half, which really doesn't do anything well. People are trying to get to point B, but it's really really far away. There are lots of mistakes here, but none of them are borne from malice.

The specific bugs you mention are examples of "the real world" -- you just can't snap your fingers and fix things. The hardware manufacturer behind the special touchpad delivered sub-quality hardware, and OLPC spent *months* trying to work around its various flaws in software, to limited success. OLPC production volumes weren't what were promised to the manufacturer, so the manufacturer wasn't inclined to help by, say, fixing the hardware. OLPC has in fact solved this problem now: by moving to a standard touchpad w/o the stylus support. In the end, this was "something new" we were trying which just couldn't be made to work, cost-effectively and in small volumes.

Stuck keys was also fixed, rather quickly. In fact, Quanta had fixed the problem in manufacturing before anyone had ever noticed it in the field. Unfortunately, the vocal early adopters received most of the affected machines.

Other keyboard problems were solved by moving to a more durable rubber compound. Unfortunately, that makes the typing feel worse; there's an inherent trade-off there. But none of these issues are *ignored*.

Crippling wifi problems are mostly due to (a) the closed-source nature of the wireless firmware: no OLPC engineer has access to it, and (b) another incredibly ambitious thing that was tried (802.11s) that we weren't able to make instantly work. Marvell has continued to give us "improved" wireless firmware, and we've put them in our builds. 8.2.1 might be "the best yet". It certainly has received abundant attention. Unfortunately, the outsourcing to Marvell didn't work so well.

Mitch Bradley was the only OLPC employee "focused on Windows booting", and he is a firmware engineer. If you have specific firmware feature requests that you feel were ignored, your complaint might have merit. The OFW2 which boots windows is as open-source as the rest of OFW. There is no NDAness there, I don't know where you got that idea. The open BIOS might be one of the few enduring legacies of the OLPC project.

"They ignore offers of help from major open-source figures" -- who are you thinking of, exactly? I can't think of anyone -- we've repeatedly asked for help.

The security issues I'll plead guilty of. "Wait days" is actually exactly 24 hours. I wrote that code myself. In retrospect, it was a mistake, and I'm sorry. At the time, I believed that we would not be able to close our "millions of laptops" deals without assurance of theft-protection. In the end, we simply weren't able to close the deals. Maybe theft protection was part of it, more likely not. I'd feel more guilty at OLPC's cratering if I didn't believe that I'd done all I could.

"Hundreds of emails" go unresponded because we're only human. We can spend our limited resources on developing sugar, or on responding to email. I'm not sorry at all I chose the first. As a member of "support gang", your job in theory was to provide the intermediaries to economize developer time. Are you saying you weren't effectively doing your job?

Give Many didn't take off because it was (a) a year too late, and (b) the economy sucks. The hardware market moves fast, and it moved past OLPC's Gen-1 hardware.

I think some decisions of Negroponte are misattributed to Chuck Kane, and that it is easy to second-guess both of them if you're not looking at the financials. In the end, OLPC had to make hard decisions because it simply didn't have the money or resources it expected. It's the decisions at the *beginning* that really should be examined, if you're going to point fingers. By the time most of the 'controversial' decisions were made, the OLPC ship was already running aground. They made the decisions they felt could keep OLPC going.

More than just Mitch are working on Windows XO, on the OLPC News Forum we found indications of a strong effort to get XP on the XO

Wrong again bozo. Wayan, you are really blowing your credibility by just getting it wrong every single time. If you had any ethics about your so-called journalism, you would actually follow some of those links and realize all the referenced firmware commits are by wmb. If you knew half as much as you pretend to about OLPC you would know that the "m" in wmb stands for Mitch. What an ignorant jerk this thread is making you look like.

Making firmware capable of booting Windows simply puts XO hardware on par with all other laptop hardware out there.

Stuck keys problem solved?

No one from OLPC alerted me about the Stuck Keys to this day! I fortunately, shipped my machine back to them and got a new one within 30 days. Not all of the G1G1 XO's had their owners online to learn about its problems, like me! There should have been a recall or test information sent out to all the owners so they could diagnose the XO, but that would have put a damper on countries buying millions!

Hello all,

when i sent this comment on the xeconomy article for the Colombia mail list, first: i choose one random comment.
not because was ENTIRELY truth, it was because it express directly some of the frustrations felt by SOME of OLPC's volunteers..
like many on Colombia.,,so that mail was only aimed to those people in our small and mistreated community.
second: i've known the excellent developers behind OLPC development and although there were errors (like in all things in life) these people have put his life to make this project succeed,some of the things mentioned on the article are not truth or exaggerated, for example the invalid bug part, i've worked voluntarily for OLPC for years now and i have not seen such a behavior.
if OLPC it's not in a good shape now IT'S NOT because of it's development team..these people are truly amazing and they are some of the most brilliant people on it's respective working fields.

in conclusion i was trying only to highlight
the fact that OLPC have forgotten and mistreatten, the localized volunteers (in this case in my country Colombia), that was also the reason that i did not send this email to other mailists.

although this is not my comment, i'm truly sorry about my mail...the original reason was not to have this discussion at OLPC news.

I have heard enough of these complaints by enough people - volunteers, supporters, even staff at OLPC - that I chose to publish this comment as representative of all their frustrations. Nay, all of our frustrations.

Wayan, you should be ashamed of yourself. You post a third-hand anonymous, factually-inaccurate rant, source it incorrectly and then hide behind the idea that you are just passing along what you hear. You are irresponsible and squandering what little credibility you have on such sensationalist attacks.

Shame on you, you give muck-raking a bad name, and betray those who work so hard on the OLPC Support Gang by spreading these lies. Where are the posts about your conflict-of-interest in working for a competing educational computing concern?

Thanks for following your own advice and giving us an anonymous, factually-inaccurate rant. You're really helping the discussion here.

Not so pleassant is it. . . Any refutation of 1) the improper sourcing of the article (it was only on OLPC Columbia after being quoted from a blog somewhere) or 2) the inaccuracy of claiming evidence that OLPC is investing resources into XP (besides the well understood effort Mitch is making on OFW). . . . still waiting to hear admission of your numerous errors, guess I won't hold my breath, although the stink is pretty bad. You've turned OLPC News into a trash bin.

Actually, whatever effort Mitch Bradley is doing with OFW is not that well understood. Please educate us.

I'd love to publish a good breakdown of what is happening around Windows to provide clarity.

Still more evasion and misdirection on your part, you continue to sink lower and lower. If you want to know what Mitch is doing, his commits to OFW code are open source, look at the logs that you previously ignored and incorrectly identified as evidence of others at OLPC working on Windows. I will not do your homework for you you lazy slug, I would just prefer that you stop pretending that you have inside information and evidence that doesn't exist. Spreading lies, innuendo and rumors is easy, getting facts right is hard and obviously too much effort for you...

I've wasted more than enough time on you and your lies, there is work to be done on helping children gain access to educational opportunity. And as for your earlier complaint about me posting anonymously, I assume that in your biased view, anonymity is only to be prized for those who choose to trash OLPC and not those who would point out your distortions of the truth and speak out in defense of the work of the volunteers that your disingenuous posting disrespects and marginalizes?

Enough already, this is getting ridiculous! Please take your Wayan bashing elsewhere if you feel you need to continue it.

As a support-gang member since Dec. 22, 2007 I can attest to the groups amazing work and spirit and OLPC would in fact be in much deeper s*** if it weren't for the 140+ people (with lets say a third of them being very active) helping out wherever they can.

Interestingly - and this the reason why I don't understand your attacks *real* OLPC Support Gang vol - I don't see the e-mail above or least of all Wayan ever attacking this group or doing anything that I would consider talking bad about it.

As Rafael also pointed out in his comment above the original e-mail was a way of venting his frustration which is very understandable.

At the end of the day I generally think that OLPC (and many in the communities around it, e.g. myself) has done a relatively lackluster job when it comes to getting more people involved in a meaningful way. The notable exception here is in fact the support-gang, mainly due to its amazing and fearless leader A.H. and his dedication and understanding of all things community-/volunteer-concerned.

Hola!

I am living in 2 worlds!

My body is in the USA, but my heart is in Colombia with my wife and baby. I consider information about the XO's problems represent honesty that the rest of the world should know. Actually, I think the Spanish language XO implementations should be the model used all over the world.

When will they have XO's besides mine in Cali?

BTW, re-reading the story and comments reminded me of an article called "Criticizing the One Laptop Per Child Discussion Critics" which I contributed in early 2007: http://www.olpcnews.com/commentary/olpc_news/critizing_discussion_critics_.html

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