This week, with orders for its laptop having failed to meet expectations–and the plunging dollar driving up the computer’s purchase price–the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program installed a new president who says that he’ll seek fresh industry alliances to boost the marketability of the maverick machine. OLPC was founded in 2005, with the aim of improving education in poor countries by putting cheap, rugged, low-power laptops in the hands of schoolchildren.
Charles Kane, OLPC’s finance chief and a former software company executive, is stepping into the role of president and chief operating officer following last month’s resignation of president Walter Bender. Bender had adamantly opposed efforts by the organization’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte, to depart from a pure open-source-software approach and include a version of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system on the laptops.
While Kane wouldn’t talk specifics about Microsoft, he made it clear which way OLPC is heading. “The OLPC mission is a great endeavor, but the mission is to get the technology in the hands of as many children as possible,” he said. “Whether that technology is from one operating system or another, one piece of hardware or another, or supplied or supported by one consulting company or another doesn’t matter.”
“It’s about getting it into kids’ hands,” he continued. “Anything that is contrary to that objective, and limits that objective, is against what the program stands for.”
Bender is the architect of an open-source interface known as Sugar, which runs on the Linux operating system and is designed to allow children to easily collaborate on documents, art, music, and other projects. For example, with Sugar, activating a tool that allows two children using different laptops to edit the same document requires a single mouse click. Such novelties suit the interface to the so-called constructionist model of education, in which children learn by collaborating and creating.
Bender says that his biggest fear is that if OLPC embraces Microsoft, it will “become just another laptop company” whose products run Windows and Microsoft-compatible programs. Negroponte says that the organization is working to ensure that Sugar can run smoothly on Windows.
Despite its technical achievements–including extremely low power consumption, innovative software, and extremely low cost–OLPC has sold few laptops, at least relative to its initial ambitions. About 500,000 machines have been delivered; early national adopters include Uruguay and Peru. In early 2006, however, Negroponte was predicting sales of more than 100 million machines by this year.
One reason for the slow uptake, Negroponte says, is that the existing computer systems of some government and educational bureaucracies around the world run on Windows. And in some countries, including Egypt, he says, the lack of Windows compatibility stalled interest. “When I went to Egypt for the first time, I met separately with the minister of communications, minister of education, minister of science and technology, and the prime minister, and each one of them, within the first three sentences, said, ‘Can you run Windows?’” Negroponte says.
One future possibility is a “dual-boot” version of the OLPC machine, in which either Windows or Linux can be launched at start-up. Activating the Windows option, however, would likely require OLPC’s customers to pay Microsoft a licensing fee of a few dollars per machine. If such a scheme were to materialize, Negroponte says, “I expect we will do a massive rollout in Egypt.”
Negroponte says that within OLPC, the open-source scrap had become a distraction. “I think that means and ends, as often happens, got confused,” he says. “The mission is learning and children. The means of achieving that were, amongst others, open source and constructionism. In the process of doing that, open source in particular became an end in itself, and we made decisions along the way to remain very pure in open source that were not in the long-term interest of the project.”
Other computer makers, including Intel, are now developing ultralow-cost laptops. Bender says that OLPC’s unique status as a nonprofit means that it should focus on developing educational tools that others can emulate. “I think what OLPC should be doing is demonstrating to the world that there is a scalable model of learning,” he says. “The fact that Intel and other companies are all trying to build hardware is great. That actually means, what OLPC could do, going forward, is focus on the learning and how you scale the learning models.”
“We aren’t working on the things I think we are uniquely positioned to work on, and not taking advantage of our position as a nonprofit to do so,” Bender adds.
Now an outsider, Bender says that he wants to continue his efforts to hone his educational-software model; he is actively trying to create a consortium of university researchers and students who will carry that research forward. “What comes part and parcel with open source is a culture, and it’s the culture that I’m interested in,” he says. “It’s a culture of expression and critique, sharing, collaboration, appropriation.” And this culture can and should spill into classrooms, he says.
Both Bender and Kane say that a near-term priority will be making sure that existing deployments of the laptop go smoothly, so that they can serve as a model for other nations. Bender says that he will remain in touch with Peruvian officials with whom he worked closely on what is the largest OLPC deployment yet attempted.
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