OLPC 2.0: After Layoffs, One Laptop Foundation Reboots With New Focus and Big Plans
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partners would manufacture the product and sell the product through their own channels.”
Beyond pursuing plans for XO 2.0, three other “technology initiatives” were highlighted in Negroponte’s restructuring announcement: no-cost connectivity, shedding development responsibility for the XO’s Sugar graphical interface, and a project to create a million digital books.
Each is a story in its own right, but we only covered the basics in our conversation. No-cost connectivity refers to finding a way for XO laptops to access the Internet free of charge. Nortel was among the companies previously helping OLPC bring Internet access to schools with XOs through satellites or other means, and I presume that SES was also part of that effort, though Negroponte didn’t mention them. In any event, a lot of work needs to be done on this front, and Kane says success will likely take the form of a business arrangement rather than a technical solution.
On the Sugar front, the foundation recently released an update of the graphical interface originally deployed with the XO that fixed bugs and incorporated a lot of what was learned in Peru and Uruguay. But, says Kane, “At that point, given our limited resources, we more or less passed Sugar back to the [open source] community.”
This is not a surprise, as OLPC officials last spring announced plans to make a version of the laptop that runs Microsoft Windows rather than its original Linux-Sugar software stack. The decision highlighted a visible split between Negroponte and Walter Bender, the onetime OLPC president of software and content, who, as Wade described it last April, left the organization over the decision to “de-emphasize radical projects like Sugar and to work more closely with the mainstream computing industry.” Bender went on to form Sugar Labs to continue development of the interface independently.
Kane and Negroponte stressed, though, that Sugar might be able to work in conjunction with Windows, just as it does with Linux. “Sugar is terrific software for early childhood learning,” says Kane. “There’s a lot of elements that make it very unique and very powerful.” He says OLPC hopes to keep working closely with Bender and Sugar Labs in the future. “We believe that the future product that’s produced out of there will be very instrumental in what we have to offer.”
The last technical initiative involves the creation of a vast library of one million digital books that can be read via open source reader software that works on the XO. The reader is being developed by Brewster Kahle, director and co-founder of the Internet Archive. Negroponte and Kane say OLPC is not deeply involved in the project but is working jointly on aspects of the technology. You can see a video of Kahle talking about his reader and the XO here.
A Great Thing to Be a Part Of
After giving his take on all the core issues facing OLPC, Negroponte had to leave to catch his plane. Before he left, I asked him about the future challenges.
“Going forward, I’m fond of saying, our first four years we behaved like Apple,” he says. The XO, he says, is “designed beautifully, it’s in the Museum of Modern Art, it’s the best of breed. In the next four years, we’ve got to behave like Google and get to lots of people doing lots of things that are really for learning, for kids and for the developing world.”
As far as progress so far, including the ups and downs, he says, “We had no choice and no regrets.”
After Negroponte had gone, Kane and I spoke a little while longer. “One of the things that I admire most about Nicholas is that he never ever steps back and appreciates what has been achieved,” he relates. “Because he feels as though that’s a breather that takes away from what you can achieve in the future. I’ve never seen an organization so blind to what’s been accomplished.”
And it’s what can still be accomplished that keeps Kane coming to work for free. “This is the moment [when] we have the most opportunity to have an impact in many, many countries,” he says. “To do what we can do and have an impact on the world in a profound way is a great thing to be a part of.”