7 minute read

The Big NN sent out an email, reposted at OLPCNews.com, with the current status of OLPC and Sugar, it's UI, to address the issues finding their way out of the woodwork after the recent staff turnover:

Sugar is a very good idea, less than perfectly executed. I attribute our weakness to unrealistic development goals and practices. Our mission has never changed. It has been to bring connected laptops for learning to children in the poorest and most remote locations of the world. Our mission has never been to advocate the perfect learning model or pure Open Source.

He goes on to argue that Sugar needs to be more agnostic, and even run on a mini-Windows:

That said, Sugar needs to be disentangled. I keep using the omelet analogy, claiming it needs to be a fried egg, with distinct yoke and white, rather than having the UI, collaborative tools, power management and radios merge into one amorphous blob. Otherwise, it is impossible to debug and will be limited to the small, albeit growing, world of the XO hardware platform.

I respectfully disagree. I think that the real path to long-term, sustained success of the OLPC project is to keep the hardware and software married tightly together (like Apple) - creating some powerful externalities with smooth operation and not worrying about really insane hardware compatibility. Unlike Apple, but totally open with it. If Microsoft wants to put effort into making a Windows XP that will work on the laptop, fine. If the open source hacker community wants to get Sugar to run as a "normal" window manager on more Linux boxes, or even somehow in a Windows environment, more power to them. But the laptop, with its stated goals of constructivism, need for simplicity, and requirements on the low-power aspects, will do best without wasting time on these side projects. Continue to work on the Red Hat Linux + Sugar implementation and get every nasty hardware/software interface bug out. A non-Mac laptop that sleeps/hibernates/recovers perfectly would be a truly amazing thing in its own right. One that also comes standard with effortless mesh networking, a videocam and mic, stereo speakers, a tablet mode, and so on -- even better. Tied with a GUI that's light on text and focuses on simplicity and clarity -- a great win for the developing world.

That's all possible (if you keep focused on Sugar + Linux + OLPC Hardware), and could be marketed as a bottom of the pyramid style approach in the developing world, and even (with some tweaks for more office style apps) as an ultra-portable "4P" system in the West.

The one thing that's still lacking (tho with piecemeal progress; Nepal's doing a bang-up job) is the educational programming and content layers. Even there, there's a few Activities built in and some content and promise of more content, but it is in need of further attention and even the creation of not only the activities, but some curricula guides to go along with. Again, there's some progress here, but it lags behind the hardware and software.

My favorite line from NN's email remains the following, which I'll quote out of context: "Because of public attention, anything we say will be quoted out of context." In his opening volley, NN says "Our mission has never been to advocate the perfect learning model or pure Open Source." - but in truth it has been advocating constructivism from the start, to the exclusion of any who wanted to use the laptops in more traditional educational models, and (for the most part) doing this through central use of open source software (and hardware). He goes on to clarify that statement, but (a) I need an excuse to quote him out of context and (b) it's a weak defense. Go read Negroponte's email yourself if you want the context :)

Without an equal amount of resources devoted to contextualizing the laptops, it won't matter what they're running -- it will be a laptop project, not an education project; the opposite of their tagline of it being an educational project, not a laptop project. As the organization shifts to deployment mode, they need to continue to focus on the core hardware and existing software stack to work out the last bugs, and start getting more and more educationally-useful activities, content, and curricula available.

Categories: ,