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

4/24/08Follow @wroush

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happen—it’s something we have to try to make happen. I’m trying to put the right tools together to make that a more natural use of the technology. It’s the right thing to do, and that’s what I will continue to work on.

X: Now that the XO laptop is being manufactured and distributed, the One Laptop foundation seems to be spinning apart, with many of the players, including yourself, leaving to pursue aspects of the technology on their own. I wonder if this is a natural evolution, to some extent.

WB: It is a natural evolution of the association. OLPC is two things—an association and a foundation. The association really was put together to make the [whole project] possible. The foundation was put together to get laptops out to kids. In some sense the association has accomplished Phase One of its work. We built a laptop, stacked it, defined how deployment should work, and the foundation has been raising money to get laptops into the hands of kids. 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. 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.

X: 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.

WB: 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.

X: Given how integral Sugar is to the XO Laptop, how can you continue to develop that separately from OLPC?

WB: It’s not my intention to do it separately from OLPC. It’s my intention to do it with the community that’s grown up around the project, and OLPC is certainly part of that community. There is this wonderful thing called GPL. Everything we have done belongs to the community, not to the foundation. I think that’s a very efficient way of moving forward, and it’s powerful along a number of dimensions.

I think the culture around free software is actually a powerful culture for learning, and one of my goals from the very beginning of the project was to try to instill in the education industry some of the culture and technology and morals of the open source movement. I think it would greatly enhance the learning and education industry and their ability to engage teachers and students. So many different things are tied up in this concept. It’s both about freedom, and the freedom to be critical. Criticism of ideas is a powerful force in learning, and unleashing that is, I think, an important part of the OLPC mission.

X: Okay, so talk about how you’ll actually take Sugar and keep growing it, and get it onto other platforms.

WB: There are two parts to it. One part has to do with continuing the momentum around the project. And there’s lots that needs to be done. It’s a generation-one product, and it needs to grow and evolve. But there’s a second piece … Next Page »

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

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