One Ecosystem Per Child: Walter Bender and OLPC Reunite to Enhance Learning and Grow Economies in Developing Nations

10/5/10Follow @bbuderi

Walter Bender and the One Laptop per Child organization are back together again. The architect of the Sugar learning environment at the heart of every XO laptop, who had teamed with OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte to launch the project but split with the organization 30 months ago, saying it had lost its way as a disruptive power, is now once again an integral part of the effort. He and his Sugar Labs colleagues are teaming with OLPC personnel to deliver laptops and help create a software development ecosystem in South America and other parts of the developing world. It’s part of what seems to be a renewed push to advance the foundation’s goals of enhancing learning and to create an economic framework to help emerging nations help themselves.

This reunification was the most surprising and important thing I learned about last week when I visited OLPC board member and strategic advisor Chuck Kane in his office at MIT for an update on the organization. Bender joined us by telephone for much of the interview. The big catalyst of the reunification was Kane, who started working with OLPC three years ago. “One of the things I really wanted to do was get Walter back into the mix, because Walter was at the front end of this project,” says Kane. “When Walter left, we kept in close touch, and when it became clear that Sugar Labs would be a natural fit to our joint mission, we decided to work together again.” The renewed collaboration began about eight months ago. And, says Kane, “He’s really had an impact on our capabilities since coming back. Now it’s a joint effort again.”

“In some sense, it’s the same as it ever was,” adds Bender. After all, he notes, OLPC has never shipped a laptop that didn’t have his Sugar environment at its core—so at least on one level, “the Sugar Labs team has never stopped working with One Laptop Per Child.” Still, he acknowledges a vastly improved relationship with the organization—and says that’s because its interests seem once again more tightly aligned with his own. “What’s different,” he says, “is that there’s a much more concerted effort to get the message out that this is not just a laptop project, it’s a learning project.”

I get into more details of what brought Bender back below, and how that is going. But first, a general update from Kane about what the organization’s been doing since I last met with him and Negroponte early last year.

The short answer, says Kane: “a lot.” Indeed, at the time we last spoke, the OLPC organization was going through a round of layoffs and splitting into two main groups. That split has now been entirely achieved. The OLPC Foundation, led by Negroponte, is continuing to develop a next generation computer while also pursuing new opportunities to bring laptops to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza—parts of the world where, in Kane’s words, “our intention is to provide by way of some kind of donation computers to the children in those areas.” That work, he says, is proceeding apace—and we will have more from Negroponte in the next few days.

Chuck KaneThe other big block is the OLPC Association, which is what Kane is part of. It is basically the business end of the enterprise, working with customers—most of them so far in South America—that buy computers rather than acquiring them by way of donations. This is the side of OLPC that handles sales, manufacturing, the supply chain, and so forth. It has moved its headquarters from Cambridge, MA, to Miami, where Kane now keeps an apartment and where CEO and chairman Rodrigo Arboleda runs day-to-day operations, closer to OLPC’s biggest customers in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Peru. “Most of our rollouts have been in Latin America, Miami is the capital of Latin America, so it’s worked out very well,” says Kane. Indeed, he says, OLPC has now delivered 1.5 million of its XO laptops, and “we’ve got about a half million on backlog right now.”

Another change in this part of the organization is that, for the first time, OLPC has built in what Kane says is a “very small” profit margin to help the organization support itself in the face of waning corporate donations. Even with this extra margin, the XO is “still by far and away the least expensive computer” in the world, he says. But the price gap is narrowing between it and commercial netbooks and laptops. “Whereas our competition was very limited two years ago, our competition today is high level, from a number of computer manufacturers,” Kane says. What’s more, he says, “they are targeting the education market in a big way.”

Which in a way is where the reengagement with Bender and Sugar Labs comes in. One … 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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