OLPC 2.0: After Layoffs, One Laptop Foundation Reboots With New Focus and Big Plans

1/29/09Follow @bbuderi

For those inspired by Nicholas Negroponte’s vision of bringing affordable computing to every child on the planet, it was a sad day early this month when the One Laptop Per Child Foundation he founded announced it was laying off half its staff and undertaking a significant reorganization.

Negroponte himself isn’t crying, though—he is working on plans for the future: OLPC 2.0, you might call it. Only a bullet-point sketch was presented on the OLPC blog, but Negroponte and OLPC President Charles “Chuck” Kane met with me last week in Harvard Square to explain more. We covered how the layoffs came about, particularly the failure of the Give One, Get One (G1G1) program and where that leaves the organization financially. And they shared plans to spin out operations in Latin America, where OLPC has been most successful, while beefing up efforts in Africa and the Middle East—as well as their thoughts on the next generation of XO laptops, including the foundation’s technical goals and commercial competition from netbooks.

While Negroponte and Kane painted an optimistic picture, pointing to the fact that the one millionth OLPC laptop will be deployed in the field in February, I found them candid about the hard lessons learned and challenges the organization faces. As Negroponte told me, his passion for the project and its importance is as strong as ever, but the foundation is at a turning point in its evolution and must focus better on where it can make big differences. “That’s the thing to keep in mind, and to make sure we don’t just perpetuate ourselves for perpetuation’s sake if some aspects of OLPC have run their course—and to recognize that and not try to be an incrementalist.”

The most vivid example of this philosophy, to me, was Negroponte’s comparison of the XO and netbooks. XOs cost about $225 apiece. Netbooks, which are produced by companies like Acer and Lenovo, among others, run about $300 to $450 but offer more memory and graphics power and larger screens. So, one could ask, won’t the normal, cost-curve-squashing evolution of computers obviate what OLPC is trying to do, and more efficiently than a non-profit? Negroponte replies that OLPC is not trying to compete with commercial computer makers but instead asking, “What are the things the normal commercial market won’t be pushing?”

In the case of netbooks, he says, “You could arguably say we really created the netbook market. But if you look at the netbooks, they really copied the easy part. They didn’t copy low power, they didn’t copy mesh networks, they didn’t copy sunlight-readable displays. All three things are absent from every single netbook.”

To understand the points Negroponte ticked off, recall that XO laptops operate on very low power, which can be generated by pulling on a cord that plugs into the computer—a valuable feature in places where people pay by the minute for electricity, or electricity is unreliable. “You’ve got to be in the two-watt regime in order for it to be something you can power by hand,” Negroponte says. Netbooks, by contrast, require more like 20 watts, he says.

OLPC laptops are also able to link together into wireless mesh networks that can easily pass data between computers, and include displays that can be read in glaring sunlight—again, features incredibly useful in developing nations and things Negroponte says the commercial market really isn’t focused on.

But we’re getting slightly ahead of the story. Before diving into the technology or future plans for OLPC, we started with what went wrong.

Give None, Get None

The G1G1 effort was crafted to spur consumers in developed nations to buy XO laptops for schoolchildren in emerging nations. Consumers could buy one, which would be sent to a school of OLPC’s choosing, and then get another laptop to keep or send wherever they wanted. In the 2007 holiday season, Negroponte told me, the program … Next Page »

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • http://www.techlearning.com Kevin Hogan

    Great piece Bob. The Sugar schism looks to be a watershed moment. The brilliance of the XO’s interface and applications like Tom Tom have always been underplayed.

    I’ll never forget the morning my daughter opened her “Give One, Get One” OLPC and proceeded to turn it on, figure it out, and dig through all the applications without referring to a single paper-based instruction. Conversely, she and her brother continue to struggle with netbooks due only to frozen Explorer windows. Digital natives hate Windows too.

    If OLPC is to be more like Google maybe they may want to look back at Sugar…

  • http://joshuadf.blogspot.com/ joshuadf

    I don’t think Negroponte appreciates how big the open source community was in the first year’s G1G1 program. I only know a few people (including myself) who have an OLPC, but we are all Linux geeks. Unfortunately the One Laptop Foundation now has the reputation of being turncoat to the community. There is still a lot of great activity, but now when it is mentioned on Slashdot there are a lot of comments about how disappointing the Windows move was. Perhaps unfair, but that’s how reputations work.

  • eric

    Probably would’ve been an interesting read. But not going to click through to see.

  • annoyed

    Why split the story across 4 pages?

    And why split in the middle of a sentence!?!?

  • Richard Howe

    The reason OLPC failed is that they almost immediately started downplaying the contributions from the open source community. The goal went from helping children learn to simply selling as many cheap Windows laptops as they could. By alienating the people most motivated to contribute to their effort, they stalled.

  • Corrin Lakeland

    Alienating the community is what’s crippled the OLPC. Sure, that might be more perceived than real but as Richard says, perception is what counts.

    Unless they manage to get the community back onside, the OLPC is an interesting piece of history. I hope the sunlight readable displays make their way onto other computers but apart from that, I don’t really care what happens to them.

  • Josh

    Today I got an acer one, I love those little netbook things,a very useful tool with ubuntu, and I knew that the first time I heard about the XO(before it was made), and nobody believed.

    But I’m sorry, I’m not going to get one, give one XO unless I know exactly who is going to receive it, simple.

    People care for people they know much more than others, and there is a lot of people that could spend 600euros in their three sons but not 1200.

    And not all the world is America, more than 90% of the world population find it very expensive to buy dollars, middle class could live well in their countries but to buy something in dollars they have to work much much more than an american).

  • paul

    Nick Negroponte killed the OLPC movement. 100% of OLPC’s support infrastructure is volunteer-based, and OLPC deliberately keeps them in the dark about everything. Bug reports get marked invalid if they’re not filed by an OLPC insider. Serious, crippling wifi problems have gone unresolved for years (in many cases, even untriaged) while they focus on supporting CD-ROM booting for Windows. The Windows-centric BIOS emulation routines are closed-source and under tight NDA. Sugar sucks because nobody bothers to fix it; they just identify one or two problem areas a year and completely rewrite everything. The stylus part of the touchpad has never worked. They never addressed the stuck-keys problem. Spare parts are expensive and hard to acquire. They ship the things locked-down securitywise and expect users to manually enter things into a website and wait days for permission to install other operating systems. The rationale for that last bit is “the G1G1 users are our test bed.”

    Dozens of support volunteers have dropped out because the support crew is expected to handle basically all of the public relations, even though they don’t know anything and aren’t authorized to speak for OLPC. Hundreds of e-mails from people willing to help go unanswered and are eventually deleted because OLPC fundamentally doesn’t give a damn about anyone who isn’t a direct employee of the company.

    The last handful of companies that Chuck Kane ran were all sold off or put under soon after he took the reins. OLPC has an undisclosed number of NDAs with Microsoft, Marvell, Quanta, and other companies. They ignore offers of help from major open-source figures, and then complain about how long it takes to develop software. QA is backlogged by about six months, and doesn’t have a testing regimen in place anyway, and probably never will because it’s run by the same pack of in-the-dark volunteers who valiantly try to provide end-user support. Kane explicitly dropped the education mission of OLPC, and claimed it was now basically about distributing laptops and to hell with what is done with them. Regardless, OLPC (in keeping with Negroponte’s amazing hubris) will only deal with national governments, and the few programs that are getting the machines into the hands of whatever schools want them (the Give Many program) never took off because (again) nobody at OLPC gives a crap.

    Basically, Negroponte started out with a great idea, then made every possible wrong decision and turned it into a steaming pile of failure, and it’s pretty damn depressing.

  • http://www.beijinglug.org Fred

    Interesting to see how a great project evolved into something that a big part of the Open Source Community has learned to hate now. The funny part is that non-geeks credit the Netbook market to Asus and still haven’t heard of OLPC.
    The good news is that there are alternatives such as the Gdium (a MIPS based netbook) which will never run Windows and has similar (initial) objectives. I hope they (we) will keep promises and achieve much more. Some people are spending time to port Sugar on this machine and a lot of other Open Source stuff.

  • Beeba

    Paul – you said it best. Moreover, Negroponte still has money to keep going especially after Microsoft bought him out. He has never apologized to all those volunteers for leading them down the garden path while he pressed flesh with important people and preached to the world about what matters and then eventually settled for “money”.

    He is a loser of the first order. Long long ago I actually thought he was cool.It is sad to see the shell the man really is.

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  • Peter Griesar

    Why not merge the OLPC hardware program into the Kindle development program?

    Since they are already working together it seems like a logical next step.

    The kindle is very low power and has a sunlit readable epaper screen. It just needs to be GSM for the devo world.

    It’s a bad idea to try and build a wifi network in the devo world when the GSM network is already in place and fairly ubiquitous.

    Also, Amazon would then have the killer student reading tool to sell to the developed world.

  • http://pobox.com/~dclark Daniel Clark

    I see many theories that may explain these facts, but I think these are the two most plausible:

    (1) OLPC is near bankruptcy, and is just offloading anything that could plausibly be done by non-staff members for free. This is what I would like to think.

    (2) NN decided a long time ago that XO 2 would run Microsoft Windows as the default / recommended by OLPC option, and he has been moving the composition of the organization to not oppose that announcement when it comes. There are some facts that would support this.

    a. With the change is management away from Walter Bender a while ago and the recent layoffs, the number of staff members that care enough about user freedom to quit if an announcement such as this were made has moved from the vast majority of employees, including top on-site management, to a much smaller number of people (approaching zero). The successful outsourcing of XO 2 hardware design would allow OLPC to lay off some of the last remaining people who really care about the freedom of users.

    b. Looking at http://trac.laptop.org/query (blocker bugs) is scary. The majority of “owners” are people who were among the laid off or otherwise no longer getting money from OLPC – from memory, at least jg, cscott, erikg, dilinger, walter, djbclark, mstone, mbletsas, mchua, and mako.

    c. Microsoft has previously surprised the OLPC staff, who initially thought Windows would not run well at all on the XO 1, by going from vague rumors of a port to having a port that worked shockingly well. They did this by throwing lots of engineering time at the problem (I believe more than the entire paid OLPC development staff as it was before the layoffs). There is no way to know that Microsoft doesn’t currently have a large number of people working on a coherent educational suite for the XO 2 to replace Sugar, or to somehow embrace and extend parts of Sugar when running under Windows. And since changes have already been made to the boot firmware to allow it to boot Windows in the XO 1, there isn’t a good reason to believe there will be any hardware-level reasons Windows won’t also work with the XO 2.

    d. John Gilmore’s post in reply to “Free Software Foundation Files Suit Against Cisco For GPL Violations” on the olpc devel mailing list –
    http://lists.laptop.org/pipermail/devel/2008-December/021841.html – and the “OLPC needs to comply with the GPL” bug – http://dev.laptop.org/ticket/4265 – point to the difficulty of continuing with the OLPC’s Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) “anti-theft” measures if running under GNU/Linux. Running Windows would solve this “problem” (said with sarcasm).

    If you have been developing for the OLPC XO 1, these would be my (personal) suggestions:

    (a) If you have been working on Sugar / Activities, continue doing so – that project has been split off from OLPC at http://sugarlabs.org – I’d suggest licensing any new activities you create under GPLv3, to combat current and any future XO tivoization. Sugar is generally useful, and can be used on non-XO devices, such as the education-focused gdium liberty 1000 – http://www.gdium.com – or any other GNU/Linux machines.

    (b) If you like hacking on operating system level stuff, take a look at http://wiki.gnewsense.org/Projects/GNewSenseToMIPS – a project to port gNewSense, one of the most freedom-respecting GNU/Linux distributions (based on Debian and/or Ubuntu), to the mipsel architecture, so it can run on the first generally available laptop that will be supportable by free software with no binary blobs (including the wifi, unlike the XO), the lemote yeeloong – http://www.lemote.com/english/yeeloong.html – this work would also help get Sugar running on a completely free, mobile platform (the gdium uses the same processor as the yeeloong, and people are porting sugar to work on the gdium).

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  • cam

    OLPC could have been marketed far better if it has simply been sold for the lowest sustainable price possible. The GiGo project was one of the most idiotic self-limiting pieces of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot idealism conceivable. If the machine had been successfully marketed to the developed world it would have been far more acceptable in the developing world. It would have enjoyed the benefit of extensive and intensive development as more and more programmers came aboard and leveraged each other’s efforts.

    The OLPC could have been the Kindle. It could have changed the world if only the people who managed it had understood more about the world.

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  • Ralph Green

    I bought the G1G1 offer last year. This year, I had several people ask me about it and I recommended they all skip it. With the changes in the program, we could not be sure that the laptop we gave away would be Linux. It would be cruel to give the kids a Windows PC, so we could not take a chance.

  • Henry Wertz

    “I don’t think Negroponte appreciates how big the open source community was in the first year’s G1G1 program”
    I don’t think he appreciates it either. I’ve seen interviews, he’s like “I don’t know why so many people left all of a sudden, using XP isn’t a big deal” more or less. My sister asked about OLPC and was going to buy one recently, I told her “It runs Windows now and it’s underpowered for it. I do not recommend it”. I give him props for essentially founding the netbook market.

    But his decision to switch from Linux to Windows was and is disasterous for OLPC. The machine just doesn’t have the specs to run Windows well, even with the costly (for a $225 machine) extra RAM and storage put in to make Windows work at all. Many people quit at this point. Negroponte had recruited volunteers by introducing his vision of a fully-open educational machine running open software. So they had less than 0 interest in working on an underpowered Windows machine. The individual buyers also did not want an underpowered windows machine. I think he could have had a successful middle ground by offering a distro where you could run Sugar, *or* run openoffice+firefox for more conventional usage This would not have alienated the open source backers he recruited, or purchasers.. but I think would have appeased the bulk purchasers who “wanted XP” (keep in mind they are not getting XP OLPC boxes to run other XP apps on… the machine has Office only, no room for more software to be installed, and Windows XP Starter addition doesn’t support file shares so they couldn’t load an app off a file server either.)

  • http://www.ondegroup.org Sandra thaxter

    You have fired up the world with hope – we’re not letting you down. We’re going to keep it going.. We’re behind you .. ready to support the nexgen the hope in children’s eyes on every photo in your archive

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