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

1/29/09Follow @bbuderi

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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.XO Laptop 2.0

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.”

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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