A blog for the enterprise open source community
It’s time to stick a fork in the OLPCMatthew Aslett, April 23, 2008 @ 7:29 am ET
Dana Blankenhorn yesterday called the OLPC project a failure for its inability to mass market a low-cost Linux laptop. Dana’s definition of failure, in this case, seems to be based on the quantity of XO laptops distributed.
Like the commenter I am not sure that is fair given the interest OLPC has generated in low-cost computing for the masses, but Nicholas Negroponte’s admission that dual-boot machines are coming and that Windows might one day be the sole operating system for the machines does indicate that the project has failed.
“One can be an open-source advocate without being an open-source fundamentalist,” Negroponte told the AP, while lamenting that the focus on open source software had caused technical problems, such as limiting support for Flash. “Negroponte said he was mainly concerned with putting as many laptops as possible in children’s hands,” added the AP.
The focus on laptop sales is laudable, but it is debatable whether it justifies abandoning open source software. This is a matter not of fundamentalism, but of principles. According to the OLPC website’s information on the software involved in the project:
“XO is built from free and open-source software. Our commitment to software freedom gives children the opportunity to use their laptops on their own terms. While we do not expect every child to become a programmer, we do not want any ceiling imposed on those children who choose to modify their machines.”
Expanding on the principles behind this decision, the OLPC states:
“The XO Laptop will bring children technology as a means to freedom and empowerment. The success of the project in the face of overwhelming global diversity will only be possible by embracing openness and by providing the laptop’s users and developers a profound level of freedom.”
And as to the benefits of this approach:
“Epistemologists from John Dewey to Paulo Freire to Seymour Papert agree that you learn through doing. This suggests that if you want more learning, you want more doing. Thus OLPC puts an emphasis on software tools for exploring and expressing, rather than instruction.”
As is explained in “What Do We Mean by Open: Software Freedom and OLPC” on the OLPC wiki, this is not a matter of fundamentalism but one of “the principles upon which we believe the success of our platform will be built.”
As OLPC news points out, there is now a very clear split in the OLPC project between learning and laptop sales.
With Walter Bender leaving the project to “further the development of the XOs’ homegrown software, known as Sugar, and get it to run on Linux computers other than XOs,” according to the AP, there is the interesting prospect of seeing Sugar running on other low-cost laptops including, potentially, Intel’s Classmate PC.
“As we said in the past, we view the children as a mission; Intel views them as a market,” said Negroponte in January as Intel and the OLPC went their separate ways following Intel’s reluctance to abandon Classmate PC in favor of the XO laptop.
As Tom Krazit wrote at the time: “The folks at the OLPC do not have a divine right to sell laptops to poor cities and towns.” What the OLPC did have in its favor was its non-profit status and its principle that the XO was a tool for empowering its users.
If the OLPC does abandon the second of those then, in my opinion, it can be said to have failed just as surely as if it abandoned its non-profit status.
Add Comment Categories: Hardware,Software