One Laptop Per Child Foundation No Longer a Disruptive Force, Bender Fears; Q&A on His Plans for “Sugar” Interface

4/24/08Follow @wroush

Walter Bender, the former president of software and content for the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, says he left his post last week because of a growing split with founder Nicholas Negroponte over whether the foundation should continue in its gadfly role in the computing world.

Negroponte—who told BusinessWeek in March that OLPC has been operating for too long “almost like a terrorist group” and that it needs to be managed “more like Microsoft”—recently reassigned Bender, his longtime lieutenant at OLPC and at the MIT Media Lab before that, to oversee deployment of the organization’s XO laptops to children in developing countries. But Bender—who led the development of the XO’s innovative graphical interface, called Sugar—resigned that post last week, and says now that he disagreed with Negroponte’s move to de-emphasize radical projects like Sugar and to work more closely with the mainstream computing industry, including Microsoft, which is readying a version of Windows XP that runs on the XO.

Walter Bender“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,” Bender told Xconomy in an interview Thursday. “Personally, I think 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 [within OLPC], so I left to do my own thing.”

It’s not the first big management change at OLPC. Former CTO Mary Lou Jepsen departed in January to create her own startup, Pixel Qi, which will commercialize energy-saving screen designs and other technologies she originally created for the XO. And Negroponte himself wants to relinquish the administrative reigns at OLPC and take on a more visionary, thought-leader role; he told BusinessWeek that he’s searching for a CEO to handle the foundation’s day-to-day management details.

From one perspective, the changes aren’t surprising. Despite Negroponte’s lofty goal of distributing millions of cheap laptops to students in areas where schools have little access to information technology, OLPC has always been structured far more like a university research project than a laptop manufacturer. “Most of the people in these offices are not qualified by their experience to make that transition” from working outside the computer-industry establishment to actually delivering millions of laptops, Negroponte told us in a January interview. The XO was, in effect, a giant proof-of-concept project—and the fact that the foundation managed to shepherd it through to mass production and then deliver several hundred thousand of the devices to countries like Peru and Uruguay is a testament to the skills and energy of the people Negroponte assembled for the task, including Jepsen and Bender.

But now that concept has been proved, whether or not distribution of XO laptops ever reaches into the millions that Negroponte originally envisioned. And it’s looking as if the project’s biggest legacy may be the individual technologies that had to be invented to make the XO work—many of which, like Jepsen’s screen designs and Bender’s Sugar interface, will now evolve separately.

For Sugar, in fact, Bender’s departure from OLPC is likely to mark more of a beginning than an end. The interface, which is designed around constructionist theories of interactive learning, is available under the open-source GNU General Public License (GPL) to anyone who wants to extend it—and Bender says that’s exactly what he hopes to do. Though his plans are still forming, Bender says he wants to find a new central home for the community of educators and software developers who have been creating Sugar-compatible applications. One of the first jobs will be to create versions of Sugar that run on multiple operating systems, meaning the interface could soon turn up on machines other than the XO.

Bender views Sugar as one of the forces unleashed by OLPC that are upsetting the way software developers and computer-makers think about the education market. But he believes it will take a combination of strong leadership and community collaboration to make sure the ideals of freedom, sharing, open critique, and transparency that are built into the Sugar interface actually touch children in the world’s classrooms.

Here’s the full transcript of our interview with Bender.

Xconomy: What are you going to do now that you’ve left the One Laptop foundation?

Walter Bender: I’m going to try to make the work I’ve been doing more broadly applicable. The possibilities, I think, are enormous. I can’t be agnostic about learning. I think we need to try to skew the odds toward children and teachers appropriating knowledge and putting it to use and engaging in critical dialogue. That is not just going to … Next Page »

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

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