|LWN.net needs you!|
Without subscribers, LWN would simply not exist. Please consider signing up for a subscription and helping to keep LWN publishing
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:
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.
Copyright © 2008, Eklektix, Inc.
This article may be redistributed under the terms of the Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 license
Comments and public postings are copyrighted by their creators.
Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds