Sugar on a stick

From Technology Review.

The open-source education software developed for the “$100 laptop” can now be loaded onto a $5 USB stick to give aging PCs and Macs a new interface and custom educational software.

“What we are doing is taking a bunch of old machines that barely run Windows 2000, and turning them into something interesting and useful for essentially zero cost,” says Walter Bender, former president of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project. “It becomes a whole new computer running off the USB key; we can breathe new life into millions of decrepit old machines.”

Bender left OLPC last year to found Sugar Labs, which promotes the open-source user interface, dubbed Sugar, and educational software originally developed at OLPC. Bender has dubbed the new effort Sugar on a Stick. The software can be downloaded for free from the Sugar Labs website as part of the new initiative, which will be announced at a conference in Berlin today.

This summer, Sugar Labs will also deploy the software at the Gardner Pilot Academy, an elementary school in Boston, under a $20,000 grant from the Gould Charitable Foundation. Sugar Labs also plans to release an improved version of the software at the end of 2009.

OLPC downsizes

ArsTechnica reports that

In an announcement posted to the OLPC wiki, Negroponte reveals that the organization will have to significantly scale back and cut costs in order to continue operating. The new budget constraints have necessitated major layoffs and pay cuts.

"Like many other nonprofits that are facing tough economic times, One Laptop per Child must downsize in order to keep costs in line with fewer financial resources. Today we are reducing our team by approximately 50% and there will be salary reductions for the remaining 32 people," he wrote. "While we are saddened by this development, we remain firmly committed to our mission of getting laptops to children in developing countries."

Another victim of OLPC budget cuts is the Sugar project, a Linux-based education software platform that OLPC developed for its laptops. This cut is unsurprising, because OLPC has gradually been moving away from Sugar and has increasingly sought to support Windows. It is still unclear whether OLPC will continue to encourage its large buyers to adopt Sugar, but Negroponte says unambiguously that the organization will be working on transitioning Sugar development entirely to the community.

The report goes on to describe the OLPC project’s “extreme dependence on economy of scale” as its Achilles heel.

The organization was not able to secure the large bulk orders that it had originally anticipated and fell short of meeting its target $100 per unit price. The worldwide economic slowdown has made it even more difficult for OLPC to find developing countries that have cash to spare on education technology. The latest restructuring effort could help OLPC regain its focus, but the failure of its past attempts to do so don’t really provide much confidence.

Hmmm… I’m sorry that they’ve hit trouble, but my sympathy is tempered by irritation at the way the project seems to be re-focussing on running Windows.

Why Walter Bender left OLPC

Interesting piece by Steve Lohr

I sent Mr. Bender an e-mail, asking him why he left. He replied that he decided his efforts to advance the cause of open-source learning software “would have more impact from outside of O.L.P.C. than from within.”

I also asked Mr. Negroponte about Mr. Bender’s departure, and he called it “a huge loss.” Mr. Negroponte said that, in his view, some people had come to see open-source software as an end of the project instead of a means. “I think some people, including Walter, became much too fundamental about open source,” he said.

After the article was published May 16, Mr. Bender sent a letter to the Times, taking issue with Mr. Negroponte’s comment and elaborating on his own views: “Mr. Negroponte is wrong when he asserts that I am a free and open-source (FOSS) fundamentalist. I am a learning fundamentalist.”

I talked to Mr. Bender last Friday to discuss his views at more length and give them a broader airing.

“Microsoft stepping in is the symptom, not the disease,” he said in the interview. The issue, in his view, is whether the tools that bring computing to children are “agnostic on learning” or “take a position on learning.”

“O.L.P.C. has become implicitly agnostic about learning,” he said. The project’s focus, he said, is on bringing low-cost laptop computers to children around the world. “It’s a great goal, but it’s not my goal,” he said.

So what is Bender’s goal? The answer is the “constructionist” learning model derived from the work of Jean Piaget and the practical research of his intellectual descendants like Seymour Papert, the M.I.T. computer scientist, educator and inventor of the Logo programming language.

Constructionist pedadogy holds that people learn best by building things — solving problems by “constructing” answers as active agents — instead of by being passive recipients of facts and received knowledge.

Lohr goes on to say that Bender

thinks the collaborative, interactive learning environment embodied by Sugar could be “a game changer in how technology and education collide.” He says he wants to see the Sugar software run on many different kinds of hardware and software platforms, even on Windows, if the Sugar experience is not sacrificed.

OLPC v.2.0

Nicholas Negroponte yesterday released some information on the next generation of OLPC hardware.

According to LaptopMag,

Negroponte didn’t share many details about the XO-2’s hardware, but the new system has two touch-sensitive displays. As you can see from the video and the pictures, the XO-2 will be much smaller than the original machine (half the size, according to the press release) and will have a foldable e-book form factor. “The next generation laptop should be a book,” Negroponte said.

The XO-2 will employ the dual indoor-and-sunlight displays, which was pioneered by former OLPC CTO Mary Lou Jepsen. The design will provide a right and left page in vertical format, a hinged laptop in horizontal format, and a flat, two-screen continuous surface for use in tablet mode. “Younger children will be able to use simple keyboards to get going, and older children will be able to switch between keyboards customized for applications as well as for multiple languages,” the press release reads. The XO-2 will also reduce power consumption to 1 watt.

According to Negroponte, the XO-2 is scheduled to be released in 2010.

David Talbot adds this in Tech Review:

The redesign is OLPC’s latest effort to revitalize global adoption of its machines. Last week, OLPC announced that the current version will soon have the option of running on Microsoft Windows; previously, the machines only ran on the GNU/Linux operating system, plus a custom interface called Sugar that emphasizes collaboration among children. With the addition of Windows, OLPC hopes to boost sales to countries, such as Egypt, that already use Windows software in schools.

Pixel Qi, the display-technology startup founded by former OLPC chief technology officer Mary Lou Jepsen, will collaborate in the development of the new computer. Its smaller size will make the laptops easier for children to carry than the previous, larger version, Negroponte said yesterday. And despite the smaller size, the display will be larger–when both screens are used–than the one on the current version. Because the machine will have no keypad, there will be fewer mechanical parts to break. And whereas the current XO consumes only two to four watts–one-tenth of the amount consumed by a conventional laptop–the next-generation version will use as little as one watt.

But until the new machine comes online, the existing XO will continue to be sold. Only about 600,000 hard orders have come in–a far cry from the 100 million that, two years ago, Negroponte said he was hoping to obtain by 2008. And last week’s announcement that the XO will have the option of using Windows or the existing Linux-based operating system has led to some debate among education officials. Yesterday, Oscar Becerra, a Peruvian education ministry official who directs the OLPC deployment under way there, says that he sees little value in adding Windows for computers in primary schools.

The extra cost of $10 for the Windows version is not trivial, he says: “If I have 10 dollars, I will decide what to do with it.” Right now, Becerra is scrambling to find funds to buy thousands of small solar-powered rechargers–at $20 each–for machines that he is deploying to villages that lack electricity.

OLPC mission control

Ivan Krstić was one of the key people on the OLPC project. He recently resigned. Here’s part of his explanation.

Not long ago, OLPC undertook a drastic internal restructuring coupled with what, despite official claims to the contrary, is a radical change in its goals and vision from those that were shared with me when I was invited to join the project. Adding insult to injury, I was asked to stop working with Walter Bender, without a doubt one of the most stunningly thoughtful and competent people I’ve ever worked with. Following Walter’s demotion from OLPC presidency, I was to report instead to a manager with no technical or engineering background who was put in charge of all OLPC technology…

What made Ivan despondent is his perception that Nicholas Negroponte sees the project as a vehicle for producing a lot of cheap laptops rather than as a primarily educational mission. According to The Register, he believes that

“Nicholas’ new OLPC is dropping those pesky education goals from the mission and turning itself into a 50-person nonprofit laptop manufacturer, competing with Lenovo, Dell, Apple, Asus, HP and Intel on their home turf, and by using the one strategy we know doesn’t work.”

Later: Actually, it’s more complicated that that quote implies. Just found a terrific, thoughtful essay by Ivan on the whole OLPC project. Lots of comments too.


This morning’s Observer column

Much heat and little light were generated last week by the announcement, made jointly by Microsoft and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, that Windows XP is to be made available on the project’s ‘XO’ laptop, the little green machine aimed at the world’s poorest children. Next month, trials of Windows on the XO will begin in what Microsoft – in a telling phrase – describes as ‘key emerging markets’.

The news has been hailed as welcome pragmatism on the part of Nicholas Negroponte, the project’s director. But among some of his colleagues and in the wider Open Source community, it has also been excoriated as a betrayal. Which view is correct? Both…

Una Laptop por Niño

There’s a serious OLPC deployment in Peru. David Talbot’s informative Tech Review report says that:

Peru is poised to deliver 486,500 laptops to its poorest children under the One Laptop per Child program–a figure that could swell to 676,500 if the Cuzco region buys in. It is the largest such OLPC purchase in the world (see “OLPC Scales Back”). I asked Becerra whether children in Lima’s slums would receive the green-and-white machines. “No,” he said. “They are not poor enough.” At first I thought he was making a hard-hearted joke. But he went on to explain that Lima residents generally have electricity and (in theory) access to city services, even Internet cafés. The laptops are headed to 9,000 tiny schools in remote regions such as ­Huancavelica, in the Andes, an arduous 12-hour bus ride over rocky roads southeast of Lima, and villages such as Tutumberos, in the Amazon region, days away. By the standards of children in those areas, the girl on the traffic island enjoyed enviable opportunity.

What Becerra told me drove home the true scope of what OLPC is trying to do in a country that, according to a survey by the World Economic Forum, ranks 130th out of 131 countries in math and science education, and 131st in the quality of its primary schools. “There is a long-term social cleavage in Peru that has been around forever,” says Henry Dietz, a political scientist and expert on Peru at the University of Texas at Austin, describing the country’s income inequality and rural poverty. “You get out of those provincial capitals, a half-hour in any direction, and you are in rural Peru, and things are pretty primitive. Electricity is a sometimes thing, and the quality of education–the school is four walls and a roof and some benches, and that is about it. There is very little there to work with.” In some cases, the laptop deployment will tie in to an existing program to bring Internet access to certain schools. But for the most part, the machines are entering an educational vacuum…

One of the things that has struck me most forcibly about my OLPC is how useful it would be as an eBook reader: the screen is highly readable in sunlight, so it’s interesting to see that in the Peru deployment each machine comes pre-loaded with 115 books. Hooray!

Trouble at OLPC?

Walter Bender has left OLPC following some, er, restructuring. Here’s the PC World story

Drastic internal restructuring at the One Laptop Per Child Project has led to the resignation of one of the nonprofit’s top executives from the effort.

Walter Bender, the former president of software and content at OLPC, has left the organization to pursue “new activities,” an OLPC spokesman, George Snell, said on Monday.

Bender’s original position as a president was eliminated during OLPC’s restructuring process, and he resigned as a director of deployment, Snell said. “There is no position remaining known as [president of] software and content, so Bender will not be replaced,” Snell said.

“OLPC recently restructured into four areas — development, technology, deployment and learning — and Walter’s responsibilities will be absorbed by those teams,” Snell said.

Bender, the former executive director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, played a key role in the development and deployment of open-source software for the organization’s low-cost XO laptop, aimed as a learning tool for children in developing countries.

“Walter Bender was the workhouse for OLPC. While [OLPC Founder Nicholas] Negroponte met with presidents, it was Bender’s day-to-day management that built the organization,” said Wayan Vota, who follows OLPC and originally reported the news on his Web site, OLPC News.

Bender promoted the use of open-source software for the XO laptop in the face of repeated efforts to load Windows XP, which has gained him a big following in the open-source community, Vota said. The loss of Bender and other key personnel over the past few months could be a sign that OLPC is focusing more on the technology than the educational aspects of its mission, Vota said.

The green machine that made Intel see red

This morning’s Observer column

An interesting package arrived in my household the other day: a small bright green-and-white laptop with a built-in carrying handle. It looks as if it has been designed by Fisher-Price, an impression reinforced by two little ‘ears’ which, when unclipped, double as wi-fi antennae. The 7.5in screen rotates and folds back on itself to form a kind of tablet, rather like those pricey Toshiba laptops only Microsoft salespeople can afford…