It looks like hard times for the One Laptop Per Child project. Quite a few
key developers have left, including Mary Lou Jepsen, Ivan Krstić,
Andres Salomon, and Walter Bender. Laptop deployments are far below the
several million that the project had hoped for by this time, and many of
the goals for the system's software have not been achieved. There is
persistent talk of supporting Windows, with suggestions that Linux could be
dropped altogether. An
on the project's development mailing list shows that quite a few
participants are concerned about where things are going. To many, it
seems, OLPC is about to go down as a noble failure.
These rumors may be just a bit premature, though. When considering what
may really come of OLPC, it's worth keeping a few things in mind.
One of those is the fact that the project has just completed a major push
to its first mass-production system. Your editor has watched the project
closely enough to see that, as with many such efforts, the people involved
have been putting in lots of long hours to get the job done. When this kind
of pressure is lifted, it is natural to take a break, catch up on the house
work, and, perhaps, find a new job. So the departure of some key staff at
this stage is not entirely surprising.
A look at the state of OLPC's software suggests that the project had set an
overly ambitious set of goals for its first release. When that happens,
one must jettison some objectives; the later that this is done, the more
likely it is that the wrong objectives will be tossed overboard. There are
signs that OLPC tried to do too much for too long, with an end result
which is not as stable, as fast, or as fully-featured as one would like.
As many people close to the project have noted, the laptop's software
remains immature. But, as former president Walter Bender put it:
While [we] have heard a lot of noise about performance in the media and
from some members of the development community, it has not, in my
experience been a major road-block in the school trials and
deployments. There are lots of bugs and lots of things that could
be improved upon, and these should certainly be addressed, but the
characterizations being made in this thread do not reflect the
realities of the OLPC deployments--the children and teachers are
using the laptops and are learning.
Finally, the number of laptops delivered to children is far below the
level the project had planned upon. Fewer deployments means a lower impact
for the project, but it also cannot be helping to create the economies of
scale the project had counted on to push the cost down. There have also
been some embarrassing failures along the way, including the misplacing of a
large number of "Give one get one" orders until after it was too late to
include them in the manufacturing run.
All of the above points to a need to make some changes in how the project
is run. Changes
always create uncertainty, so it would be surprising if OLPC participants
were not a little nervous at the moment.
What happens in the next few months will likely determine OLPC's fate. The
project's leadership has famously said in the past that OLPC is an
education project, not a laptop project. Some people have recently expressed concerns that, in fact, OLPC is
turning into a laptop project, with deployment numbers being the main
goal. Nicholas Negroponte doesn't help when he allows
himself to be quoted as being "mainly concerned with putting as
many laptops as possible in children's hands." If OLPC becomes
primarily a low-cost laptop vendor, and especially if it goes to
proprietary operating systems as a means toward that end, it will lose much
of the community that has grown up around the project.
And that would be a shame. There is great beauty in the idea of putting a
well-designed learning tool into the hands of children and empowering those
children by providing a system which is completely open and hackable. A
large and motivated community of highly-capable people came together behind
that vision and did their best to rethink how this technology should work
and create something better. Deployment groups in a number of countries
have gotten the resulting systems into the hands of thousands of children,
and many of them are reporting good results. A lot of good things have
happened here, and it doesn't have to end now.
But it might end soon. To pull things together, the project will have to
communicate a clearer vision of where it plans to go with its
software at all levels; Mr. Negroponte's statement of continued support for
Sugar appears to be an attempt to start this process. The operational
side of the project needs to get its act together. Some transparency on,
for example, what is being done with donation money and what agreements
have been made with outside corporations, would be most helpful. And, most
of all, the group of volunteers working with this project have to be
convinced anew that they are not wasting their time. If the project's
leadership can manage all of that, there may well be great things coming
from OLPC in the future.
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