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OLPC at a turning point

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By Jonathan Corbet
April 23, 2008
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 ongoing thread 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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OLPC at a turning point

Posted Apr 24, 2008 5:55 UTC (Thu) by rsidd (subscriber, #2582) [Link]

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.

There is great beauty in that idea, for children who want it. It should not be rammed down the throat of every kid. At least, it can be, but governments should not be asked to pick up the tab, when the money could be spent usefully on many more important things. I don't just mean electricity and clean water, though those are priorities too in many target countries. I mean basic education in reading and writing, math, science. It is an achievable goal with old-fashioned textbooks, and spending $100 on one laptop per child will leave governments that much less to spend on real education. There is NO evidence, even in developed countries, that laptops improve basic language and math skills; and some evidence, in fact, to the contrary.

I also don't know why these machines aren't being sold on the open market. Lots of rich kids in developed and developing countries would enjoy a hackable toy like the OLPC. Lots of parents would prefer buying such a thing to a dumb Windows machine, if their kid has the aptitude for such things.

There is NOTHING wrong with a child, or an adult, who does not enjoy hacking on a computer. You can have any number of successful and productive careers, and even be a productive user of a computer, without going all low-level.

The whole OLPC idea reeks of an elitist, condescending "We know better than you, so take what we give you and be grateful" attitude. I'm glad India chose early on not to be a part of it.

OLPC at a turning point

Posted Apr 24, 2008 9:14 UTC (Thu) by Cato (subscriber, #7643) [Link]

The key part of that quote is "a well designed learning tool" - the hackability is not the
main goal, although in my view (and the author's) it is also important.

OLPC is not just a laptop, it's a way of very cheaply distributing textbooks and educational
applications, compared to the cost of printing text books, paying for many extra teachers,
etc.  It may actually be a very cost effective way of improving education, and it's certainly
worth a try - existing approaches have not generated a step change in the number of children
who reach a high level of education.

OLPC's openness is important for developing countries as a secondary and longer term goal,
because it will also spread technology awareness and help create a small percentage of real
hackers who will be able to kick-start the country's IT industry when they are a little older.

Flash...

Posted Apr 24, 2008 9:15 UTC (Thu) by deleteme (guest, #49633) [Link]

Acording to Slashdot Flash was one of the issues for calling the Linux people zealots. I think Flash has to be accepted, it's extremely good at what it does, haven't seen anything that comes close to Flash. Especially in speed, and ease. Openstreetmap is a prime example, the best UI they could build was in Actionscript, against java, HTML, python and c++.

Flash...

Posted Apr 24, 2008 9:40 UTC (Thu) by deleteme (guest, #49633) [Link]

From Adobe Flash distribution license - "Licensee must use the installers as-is without modification.". They can't create package for Flash, because packaging involves installing software not according to the way provided by software manufacturer.

Flash...

Posted Apr 24, 2008 9:52 UTC (Thu) by njd27 (subscriber, #5770) [Link]

You say
Openstreetmap is a prime example, the best UI they could build was in Actionscript, against java, HTML, python and c++.

But this is not strictly true. The best UI for editing OSM is written in Java, and it is called JOSM. It's not online, but this allows many features such as plugins which would be impractical on the web.

You should say "The current UI, Potlatch, for editing OSM data on the web uses ActionScript".

Flash...

Posted Apr 24, 2008 19:10 UTC (Thu) by smoogen (subscriber, #97) [Link]

As Walter Bender points out in one of the "Why isn't Flash?" emails is that Flash is
available... either as the propietary plugin or gnash. The gnash plugin is limited to open
codecs which limits what can be shown. The Flash plugin is also available, but requires the
local place to get in contact with Adobe about licensing. 

OLPC at a turning point

Posted Apr 25, 2008 4:14 UTC (Fri) by ikm (subscriber, #493) [Link]

When I saw the name of the article, I thought I'd be getting some real facts about the state
of the project all put together — instead, what I got was mostly about something that I could
roughly describe as "positive thinking". Sure, we can think positive, make assumptions and so
on, but I'd like some actual facts to think about in the first place. E.g., some time ago I
overlooked a more or less recent news' item where another key member was getting resigned, and
since I lost it back then, I thought I'd be reading about it here with some details — and all
I got was the list of the developers who had left. But those people probably had some
explanations on why they were leaving. Instead of betting on some 'done-here-i-want-new-job'
ideas, it'd be interesting to read what was that the people who resigned actually had to say.
Point is, the article is kind of low on facts, I got the impression that most of the text is
about how everything can probably be a normal or a good thing, but what exactly is the state
of 'everything' felt a bit too generic.

OLPC at a turning point

Posted Apr 26, 2008 15:27 UTC (Sat) by loevborg (guest, #51779) [Link]

I agree that I would have liked to see more meat in the article. Sadly, it seems that OLPC on
the whole is in a pretty bad state. Which doesn't mean it's dead, mind you. Mozilla rose from
the almost-dead Netscape, after all. Here's one ex-key-developer's thoughts:
http://radian.org/notebook/this-too-shall-pass


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