What if OLPC and Sugar Labs were For-Profit?


After listening to John Gilmore's opening keynote at the 25th Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin at the end of December and generally thinking about the current modus operandi when it comes to open-source development an odd thought hit me:

What if OLPC and Sugar Labs went for-profit?

Now obviously this is a question that's been discussed many times over the past three years but somehow I myself hadn't really spent too much serious thought on it. When Nicholas Negroponte is asked why he decided to make OLPC a non-profit, even though many people had advised him to go the for-profit route, he always answers that being non-profit provides "a clarity of focus and mission". After all, it's about bringing education to children and not about selling laptops...

Walter, can you see the profit?

The thing is that being a non-profit and heavily making use of the open-source way of doing things might in fact work better for selling low-cost laptops then it does for bringing education to children. Maybe that part of the mission is better served by a for-profit entity.

What an odd thing to say! Shouldn't it be the other way 'round? Selling laptops being the for-profit part of the equation and education being the altruistic non-profit aspect?

The reason why I think this might not be the case lies in the nature of (often) unpaid development which is a cornerstone of the free-and-open-source landscape. The motivation for most people living la vida FOSS is simple: scratching an itch they have.

Now guess how many of those people aren't happy with the major Linux distributions and start rolling their own customized setup? How many didn't like the OS on their eee PC and started hacking and customizing it? How many had an interest to make Ubuntu run well on Apple's notebook? Quite a few of them as it turns out, hence why there's been a lot of progress in these areas.

And now guess how many people have an itch to make education with laptops work in the developing world? An itch that's strong enough to make them work on it in their spare time? Some, but not merely enough, hence the generally slow progress in that area.

Of course it's understandable to spend your time and energy on something that's close to your heart. But I can't help feeling that all the time spent by the Fedora, Debian and Ubuntu communities on making their distribution run on the XO would be better spent improving Sugar, helping in translation, writing documentation (= things that help everyone with an XO, not just the people using distribution X) and thinking how to make FOSS work for education.

When Microsoft is perceived to take over OLPC there's lots of shouting and complaining about the dark side winning when it comes to education in developing countries. Yet I see surprisingly little action as a result and most people prefer to turn their backs on OLPC instead of putting up a fight in their evenings and on their weekends.

Imagine what Sugar could be

Can you imagine how much progress could be made if an organization such as OLPC or SugarLabs actually had the means to employ a sizable team of developers and educators?

Imagine a dedicated staff of 100 people working full time on the challenges related to making Sugar the best learning platform there is? Grow and foster a dedicated community around that organization and have the mothership support it instead of the community having to ask for donations to make important events such as XOCamp happen.

Others are more knowledgeable on the details but from what I've seen Red Hat / Fedora do a pretty amazing job in that area. In fact they seem to do it so well that it's somewhat hard to imagine one entity without the other.

Now the question is who would pay money to make such an organization a financially viable enterprise? I'm thinking: everyone. Why? Because they do it already anyway, which is exactly why the Microsofts and Intels of the world want a big piece of what they consider a profitable market with some nice growth prospects in the future. Furthermore I'm confident that if set up and run well an OLPC or SugarLabs for-profit entity could compete with other players in the field, both in terms of cost and quality.

At the end of the day what I'm saying is that bringing computer-based education to potentially hundreds of millions of children across the globe is such a huge undertaking that it might just be tad too large to be tackled by two largely volunteer based organizations.

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I think having a nonprofit was seen to be more attractive to getting vollunteer students at the MIT media lab. Raising money to become for profit to assist the poorest of the world, just did not seem to be economically viable.

If the plan fails, it's OK since it is a non profit.

If it's for profit, all hell breaks loose from the investors losing their shirts!

Right now, if you look at the business plan that was promised and delivered, there would be many investors that would have thought they had invested in another Maddoff money making scheme!

Sugar is so crude, nobody in his right mind would give a penny for it. The funny thing is that the only people who care about Sugar are Linux "fundamentalists" (as Negroponte calls them), and those guys are used to paying zero dollars for their software.

Face it: there is very little in Prof. Negroponte's project that can be sold for profit. The XO tested the marketplace and the results are depressing.

What would people find attractive?

So, rather than engaging in quasi-idiotic dreams of making money where there is none to be made, the energy should be spent on fixing the many broken things that need fixing at OLPC.

It is not like Negroponte can hang a sign that says: "Now open for profit...I mean, open for business" and the elusive sales will materialize!

C'mon, guys, show some common sense...

You have your finger on the problem, but not the solution.

This is an educational project with three components: laptop, sugar, and open educational content. After the breakup and before the layoffs, OLPC had clearly limited itself to the XO. SugarLabs has become responsible for Sugar. The educational component has been left to luck and the deployments.

Providing proprietary content to schools is a major and very profitable IP industry. Not surprisingly, the schools which are most in need of the XO also lack access to textbooks. Trying to create a commercial enterprise to get more funds from the deployments to buy educational materials for the XO would be futile.

There is no lack of non-profits and developers who are creating open educational resources and open courseware. The problem is that almost none of this is designed for primary school students.

There are also several initiatives to build open content for the XO (e.g. WavePlace)

What is really needed is someone comparable to Nicholas Negroponte or Walter Bender to provide the vision, leadership, organizational focus, and drive to add this third leg. A tall order to be sure.


Hey, I'll tell you how I see it without holding back!

I spoke with a local school district getting 100's of XO from OLPC here in the USA. Yes, NN did his little speech about how great the students would become. OLPC failed by not telling them that implementation is important. I mean really, who even suggested that the middle school students should get the XO? Those kids are leaving the school system next year. Where was the knowledge of OLPC? No one said how to implement the XO's into the coursework. OK, call me unrealistic, but I was in an interview there and it was me telling them of how they should have rolled out the XO. It was too late! They had promised the older children the new XO laptops!

That school will be all messed up and then blame the XO, when OLPC failed to properly train the school district!

Now the question is who would pay money to make such an organization a financially viable enterprise? I'm thinking: everyone.

OK, how much are YOU ponying up?

I'm not the target market here as I'm neither an educator nor parent. However even with my limited exposure to people within the (Austrian) education sector I certainly do believe that they would be willing to spend money on a Sugar "product" (with support, etc.)

The answer is the same as before -- "Because for-profit entities can be easily taken over by for-profit interests".

Just like non-profits can easily be taken over by other forces, e.g. assuring your place in history. IMHO in that regard neither model is perfect and has lots of potential pitfalls.

True, if a nonprofit organization failed to ignore the influence of completely unrelated companies, then trying to fix it by replacing the nonprofit with a new company that will now have to be influenced by those companies is like fighting fire with gasoline.

There is nothing wrong with OLPC that would get any better if it was converted into a traditional laptop manufacturer. Not unless its only purpose would be to develop a single product and get bought by Dell or HP before its release.

...should start with "True, however"

Well, I don't think that OLPC can (or will) change horses in the middle of the race...

However I was really more interested in the potential perspective for Sugar Labs and questioning the larger "it's gotta be non-profit" mind-set that a lot of people seem to have.

Of course the question is always where you draw the line but I'm thinking (and maybe I'm just being naive here) that adding $5 of profit for every XO / Sugar combo sold would go a long way in terms of funding crucial developers for software and educational content.

Education has two integrated parameters, WHAT you teach and HOW you teach. Most of us grew in an environment where “what” was given and unquestionable and we probably have fond memories of “that teacher” that made all the difference, making us to believe that HOW is what makes the difference. This is not true. A good teacher in the US is not necessarily a good teacher in Afghanistan. A good teacher for one kid is not a good teacher for the next (ask your classmates :-)
XO-Sugar-OLPC-FLOSS are focusing primarily on a specific “how”. For-profit educational software providers are focusing primarily on “what” within the context of a specific curriculum and present it with various computer-assisted methods.
It is unclear to me what the suggested for-profit organization will focus on, when we are really talking not for a global market but for hundreds of markets globally. More important, who is going to invests on it? Who is going to invest on 50-100 different products/projects/markets? Does anybody know what they would like to teach in Afghanistan or Ethiopia? And if he/she does know, is there enough common core (eg market) that would justify the top-down for-profit approach? This is a massive undertaking (investment) only at the research level, before you even decide if a viable business is there.
My 2 cents for a global educational program is provide a GUI application with boxes, action buttons, and menus where local communities can throw their material on (the more forms accepted the better), interconnect it they way they think (consecutive, reciprocal, indirect, opposite, random etc), define the actions and responses that they expect from the users (pick, move, navigate, introduce-remove element, type, etc), define if they are going to be cooperative, student-to-student (competitive) or teacher-student (testing), press the “done” button and get the “superactivity.xo” package that will be XO compatible (eg low processing power) and take advantage of the XO connectivity features. In short something like a GUI Python (or any other interpreter language)!
Provide also some sample applications and scenarios as guides to trigger imagination and showcase possibilities. If you can also provide truly-universal or region-appropriate content all the better.
This I think is a global “product” that also promotes unique OLPC hardware features eg low power and interconnectivity, and it could have a market from governments, local organizations or local businesses that want to sell the finished application. It would be much closer to OLPC goals on providing computer assisted education in the harsh conditions of the developing world and could be also used by the developed world (expanding the potential market).
Could also be developed as open-source assuming that enough people have an itch for wrestling with education rather that hardware…

Excellent comment and idea indeed! Also reminds me of David Van Assche's idea about developing a "Sugar framework" (http://lists.sugarlabs.org/archive/iaep/2009-January/003563.html)

I recently became a junior kindergarten to grade 8 computer teacher, and have learned that dealing with for profit software can be quite a headache. A lot of that commercial software is quite good, and there is certainly a lot of choice compared to the open source world, but it does present some interesting challenges.

In one case, I cannot legally use the retail version of the software on classroom computers. Rather, I have to purchase the nearly identical education version that costs over 30% more in small quantities and about 5% less on a volume license. Presumably the logic behind this is that more people will be using the software, and it will be in service for much longer. Thus they have to charge schools more in order to maintain profitability. Still, it does impact what I can do in the classroom since a $1000 license for 20 computers is non-trivial. And that only coverse one application that is a small part of the educational program being offered.

Another angle that many end-users aren't familiar with is buying software on subscription. Simply put, you pay for the rights to use the software on an annual basis. If you stop paying, you have to stop using it. Nope, you cannot even continue using the old version.

In addition to the financial burden is the support burden. Even the most trivial things are time consuming when you multiply it by 20. For profit entities want to protect their intellectual property rights, and they will do so by physical and quasi-legalistic mean. A physical protection may require the CD being inserted into the drive when the program is run, which doesn't work well with some classroom management software and certainly doesn't work well with some children (who like ejecting CDs). A quasi-legalistic protection may involve presenting the EULA each and every time a program is run. Not only will the 4 to 6 year old, that the software was designed for, not be confused by it; but it wouldn't even be binding upon them.

Sugar and FLOSS does a few things right. Since Free software is free in both senses of the word, it is not a financial burden upon the classroom. Reducing the financial burden also reduces the bureaucratic burden, since you no longer have to get administrative approval for expenses.

Sugar also makes things like software installation easier, which is important if you want to try new stuff with your students. No multistep installers that are basically there to present the EULA. No license keys to transcribe many times over. No verifying that you have adequate rights to install that copy.

Now if only they offered more of the software that I need to teach.


There is definitely a need for more open educational material aimed at K-8. If you wish, send me an email at tony_anderson@usa.net to see if there is a way we can cooperate on that.


I would agree with Jordan. I am a middle school math teacher who is using Scratch with her students. Once I uploaded the software to each computer; they were free to explore and expand the boundaries of my lessons. Which every math teacher loves. They have become so good that they come each day with a new concept they learned using Scratch. As they left for Spring Break; they all wanted a copy to take home to continue their explorations. I was delighted by their requests. I made sure to let them know about the resource website and told them about the 'etoy" program.
The use of OLPC by my daughter living with Down Syndrome is especially a key reason why I will purchase future machines. She enjoys the Record app and the TamTam app. The Record app allows her to mimic the sign language she learns and she enjoys seeing & hearing herself practice her facial parts. She also likes the fact that no one in the family gets upset when she presses the keyboards on the OLPC. The cause and effect that she learns by clicking on the "sound-cards" of TamTam is important for her cognitive development. If the price comes down for US small group purchases, I would easily spend my own money for 10 of these for her classroom. The assistive technology that they have for children with these type of cognitive and physical disabilities is too expensive for some schools and most parents.
Keep up the good work and don't let the naysayers discourage you!