Bender Creates Sugar Labs—New Foundation to Adapt OLPC’s Laptop Interface for Other Machines

Walter Bender, the former president of software and content for the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, contacted Xconomy this morning to alert us to the creation of Sugar Labs, a non-profit foundation that will work on new versions of Sugar, the learning-oriented graphical interface Bender developed for the OLPC’s XO Laptop.

Coming on the heels of last night’s announcement of a formal deal between OLPC and Microsoft to make a version of the XO that runs Windows rather than its original Linux-Sugar software stack, Bender’s move gives concrete form to a split that has been developing in recent months among the leading engineers and educators behind the XO—something he spoke about in a detailed and revealing interview with us a few weeks ago.

OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte has said that OLPC needs to become more systematic and pragmatic about the way it manufactures and distributes the XO—which, in practice, has meant working with established commercial software organizations such as Microsoft and even, as yesterday’s deal showed, replacing the XO’s own software with Microsoft’s. Bender, meanwhile, leads a contingent who believe that it is important that the learning software educators offer to children in developing countries be based on open-source principles.

Sugar Labs “will be a unifying catalyst for free and open-source learning systems across multiple distribution[s] and hardware platforms,” Bender wrote in an announcement on the new Sugar Labs wiki. “In order to provide a rich learning experience to as many of the world’s children as possible, it is critical to not just provide computers to children, but to ensure that the software that runs on the computers maximizes the potential for engaging in activities that promote learning: exploration, expression, and collaboration. By being independent of any specific hardware platform and by remaining dedicated to the principles of free and open-source software, Sugar Labs ensures that others can develop diverse interfaces and applications from which governments and schools can choose.”

The announcement says that Sugar Labs will work on adapting Sugar for low-cost platforms other than the XO, such as the ASUS Eee PC. Many of the developers who helped Bender create Sugar will participate in the new lab’s projects, including Marco Pesenti Gritti, Bert Freudenberg, Simon Schampijer, Bernardo Innocenti, Aaron Kaplan, Christoph Derndorfer, and Tomeu Vizoso, the announcement said.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Christopher Taylor

    Good on SugarLabs. Those in the developing world that embrace open source principles from the outset will be better off. They’ll have more choice, more control, more freedom and ultimately be better for the move in being able to take control of the system from the ground up.

    I have nothing against commercial software, large computer companies or even Microsoft (haven’t used it since the days of NT, because I went over to Apple because of the field in which I work)…but in this case Windows is the wrong tool for the job. It maybe what people want, but in this case it is as if they wanted DDT instead of using safer, traditional farming organic methods. Both will get you crops, but DDT will bring a whole host of nasty stuff along with it.

  • Nathan DBB

    Well,
    Sugar is not sweet. It has a serious buggy flavor from start to finish.

    Sugar has already hurt the reputation of Linux, as most people think that Linux failed on the OLPC. I bet that this will set desktop Linux acceptance back a few years — it is a PR nightmare.

    What a mess!

  • Dixon

    To Nathan DBB: Even if it is true that the OLPC Sugar interface was a “buggy” as you describe – how would describe Windows 1.0? The development of any significant, and in this case, arguably disruptive technology, is a journey. There is no destination other than bringing simple and wonderful utility to those who need it, not white collar office based overhead.

    I have worked IT in Africa and continue to be stunned at how hard Microsoft is working to lock down the developing world into using its products. They have very little concept, and even less exposure to what open source is all about, even now in 2009.

    This is just a damn shame, as they have so few resources in the first place. The last thing they need to spend their resources on is learning massively bloated, proprietary software with features they don’t need and will never use.

    Do you think anyone in Redmond develops software specifically for their needs? At low to no cost? Can you imagine a marketing slide at Redmond even saying a thing like that? I cannot, and I know the Redmond crowd first hand.

    Last of all, as Sugar is Open Source…if you don’t like the bugs, and that is a problem for you, then you should become part of the solution. I have given of my precious time helping these people, what don’t you?