The XO Laptop: It’s the Software, Stupid

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OLPC is a learning project, not a laptop project. The XO is simply an embodiment—the best one current technology will allow, given the compromises necessary to make the device cheap, durable, and power-miserly—of constructivist learning principles that philosopher-psychologist Jean Piaget and computer-science pioneers like Seymour Papert and Alan Kay have espoused for decades, and that have long had a home at the MIT Media Lab, which, of course, Negroponte himself founded in 1985.

“There is a long history of technology and learning,” says Bender. “We and others have been working on this problem for almost 50 years. So we have a Logo environment on the XO, called TurtleArt. [Logo is the graphical programming language co-invented by Papert.] We have eToys, a fabulously rich program that is the embodiment of Alan Kay’s life work.” In fact, almost every piece of software on the XO is designed to advance the constructivist belief that learning occurs most efficiently when it’s active, social, and exploratory, with constant feedback between instructors and learners and between learners themselves.

Sugar does include some unique quirks—“things we’ve done that we’ve done because we thought they were necessary, and because we had the opportunity to correct things that were just wrong in other systems,” in Bender’s words. For instance, Bender has a grudge against double-clicking and overlapping windows, two user-interface conventions that he says are “fundamentally bad ideas” and are notably absent from the XO. But “we are not reinventing the wheel if we can help it,” he says. The operating system on the XO is Fedora, a free version of Red Hat Linux; its Web browser is a version of Mozilla’s Firefox; the word processor is based on Abiword, a popular open-source program; its streaming media player is a free version of RealNetworks’ Helix system.

Bender says his goal for 2008—aside from simply getting more laptops into the hands of students, of course—is to make the Sugar platform more stable and get the remaining bugs out. “We also want to do a better job of supporting the community, so that more flowers can bloom,” he says. That’s the main reason that virtually everything on the laptop, right down to the hardware drivers, is open-source—so that it can be shared and so that, ultimately, responsibility for maintaining the platform can be transferred from the foundation itself to the community of educators, students, and developers using the XO. “In open-source you strive to push everything upstream, because as soon as it’s upstream, it’s not your problem anymore, it’s the community’s problem,” says Bender. “That’s a great place to be. And we are trying to push as much upstream as possible, because we won’t be successful otherwise.”

Especially not once shipments scale up to the millions, and students are using the laptop in dozens of countries, including the United States. Ultimately, the XO Laptop will succeed only in proportion to the creativity that students, teachers, software developers, and education ministries pour into it—and that’s largely out of OLPC’s hands. But the flowers are already starting to bloom, on YouTube and elsewhere. (The blog for Uruguay’s Ceibal Project, whose official goal is to give one laptop to every child in the country, is full of examples like the cow video).

“Now, are we finished?” asks Bender. “No, we’ve got a long way to go. But it’s beginning to happen. The laptops are getting into the hands of kids and into the hands of software developers, and they are starting to use them and discover things they like and things they don’t like, and they are fixing the bugs, and they are supporting each other. It has exceeded my expectations, the level to which the community has engaged in the process”–and assisted in the XO’s own birth.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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