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 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 to it, and that is, how do you actually support this in the field. It’s not mature enough yet to be completely self-supporting. While that is certainly a goal, it’s a difficult goal to achieve. I spent a lot of time in Peru working on the Peru deployment [of the XO Laptop], and one of my goals in Peru was to build a lot of redundancy around support. That’s fundamentally a social problem, and how you solve it is an enormous challenge and one that I’m really interested in. So there is a technical piece and a social-cultural piece and both of them are passions of mine.

The exact form or framework to work on those problems is to be determined. I’m having a number of conversations with people about maybe hosting the program at a university or setting up another foundation, or maybe even setting up something that is a for-profit, open source project. There are a lot of ways of doing it. Maybe there will be multiple ways. I don’t own this, and don’t have any intention to own it. I think the redundancy of that approach is probably important as well.

X: On the technical side, how do you take something that was developed so specifically for the XO Laptop platform and port it to other platforms?

WB: Over time there are lots of things that will happen with Sugar in terms of efficiency and platform independence. Already, the community has by and large ported Sugar to Ubuntu [a form of Linux]. You can do an “apt-get Sugar” and if you’ve put the right repositories in place, you can install Sugar on Ubuntu. There is also a live CD that some folks in Austria put together, so you can run Sugar from your CD drive. There’s a lot of discussion on the developer forums about how to make all of that happen more efficiently.

The flip side—it’s been attributed to Steve Jobs, though I never heard him say it—is that if you really care about software you have to work on hardware. Certainly there are a lot of hooks from Sugar into the OLPC hardware, because the hardware itself is pretty special. But while I think that the things that OLPC has done with the hardware are necessary for successful deployment, I think that there are compromises that can be made with other hardware in the short term. So [you could get Sugar running on] other laptops and even other computers.

X: Is it conceivable that someday there would be an XO Laptop without Sugar?

WB: You’d have to ask OLPC. Even today, it’s easy enough to turn Sugar off and run the laptops with a standard Linux distribution. Microsoft allegedly is working on XP for the XO laptop. Sugar is not tied to the XO.

X: Let’s back up. You’ve said many times, and so has Nicholas Negroponte, that OLPC is a learning project, not a laptop project. So can you talk about the basic pedagogical principles that are important to you, and how Sugar embodies those?

WB: When we started to do this, I tried to build the solution based on three very simple principles about what makes us human. Because I knew this had to be something that worked everywhere, with every child. The first of the three things is that everyone is a teacher and a learner. Second, humans by their nature are social beings. Third, humans by their nature are expressive. I decided those would be the pillars of how we design the user experience for the laptop. The other thing is that I was very much influenced by Seymour Papert and his constructionist theories, which can be summarized in my mind very efficiently by two aphorism. One is that you learn through doing, so if you want more learning you want more doing. The second is that love is a better master than duty. You want people to engage in things that are authentic to them, things that they love. The first is more addressed by the Sugar technology; the second is more addressed by the culture around freedom.

In terms of the technology—as we already discussed, that drove in my mind the necessity to make this an open source project. But secondly, when we started Sugar I said that the presence of people always has to be present. Because if you are going to collaborate with people, we need to make it a first-order experience. I want the kids and teachers to engage in a dialogue with each other, to support each other, to critique each other and share ideas. So that presence had to work independent of whether or not the Internet was available. We were developing this mesh network, so I knew every computer was going to be connected to every other. Therefore I said, let’s take advantage of that in the interface. That was driven by the pedagogy and was a core feature of the interface.

The third thing had to do with making Sugar be discoverable. We’re dealing with a wide variety of users, with different levels of skill in terms of reading, language, and different levels of experience with computing. So I wanted to make everything easy to approach, and at the same time have no floor and no ceiling. The best example of that in the current laptop is the music software. You go from something that a two-year-old can use to the same tools they use in Hollywood for musical effects. You can peel away layers and go deeper and deeper, with no restrictions.

Part that that was introducing into the hardware a key called the resource key. It’s a little gear on the space bar. If you hit “function-gear” you can pop right into the source code of whatever you are working on. That is layered as well. If you are on a Web page, first you go to the HTML. But you could literally browse the code of the Web browser, if you wanted. You can drill down as far as you want. One of the reasons we based Sugar on Python is that it is an interpreted language instead of a compiled language. The executable code is the source code. That means it’s a language allowing the appropriation of ideas. Whether what they are drilling down to is music software, a browser, reading, writing, graphics, the idea is that they are not going to hit a wall.

X: So Sugar is going to become an open-source project in its own right. Do you have any thoughts yet about how you’ll organize it?

WB: I had a student named Cameron Marlow, who was at Yahoo last I knew. [He's now at Facebook. --eds.] His thesis was about the “rule of many.” You have this Gaussian distribution of efficiency, where after 150 people or so, an organization gets too big and you peak in terms of the most efficient size. What Cameron studied was what happens if you follow the tail out really far [to larger and larger numbers]. Sometimes you get a lift again–a new kind of efficiency. That’s the rule of many. He studied it in the context of the blogosphere, but there are lots of examples—Wikipedia is probably the poster child. But he didn’t just observe the rule of many; he tried to understand what are the mechanisms that determine whether the rule of many is going to be applicable. He didn’t come up with a definitive list, but he did identify certain criteria. One is obviously that you have a large number of people. Second is that these people share a common goal. And a third is maintaining independence, so that each agent has the ability to act independently.

I think in the case of Sugar and support for Sugar, I want to use this rule of many approach. And part of that is ensuring this freedom of agency on behalf of the participants. You don’t want to try to control it. You want to build the discussion around common goals, but not be deterministic in terms of needs. You have to let the independent agents determine their own needs. Exactly how this will manifest itself, I don’t know. But I do know that part of it has to do with being open about communication, and letting the community engage in the dialogue. Transparency is also really important.

X: But aren’t some of the most successful open source projects actually very dictatorial at their core? Witness Linux, where Linus Torvalds is still the one making the final decisions.

WB: You need to have leadership, you need to be driving what the goals are, and you need to have clear decision-making processes. But at the same time you need to have transparency. It isn’t necessarily easy, and it’s certainly outside the natural instincts and comfort zone of most industries. But when you get it right, it’s really powerful. And I’m determined to get it right.

X: If it turns out that the biggest legacy of the One Laptop Per Child foundation was not that it got hundreds of thousands of laptops out to kids, but that it spawned all of these other efforts that perhaps will yield advances along many fronts of educational computing, is that such a bad thing?

WB: That’s not a bad thing at all. And the little green-and-white laptop is not bad either. Getting more of those out into the world is not a bad thing.

X: But for a long time, outsiders have gauged the success or failure of the One Laptop project mainly whether, or how many, laptops were getting out into the hands of kids.

WB: I would challenge that as being the critical dependency. I think doing it was critical, because it’s not real until you do it. We’ve demonstrated that this can be done. We’ve gotten the world to be interested in doing it. Now we have to let more people participate in the doing and not try to control it and own it.

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

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