This post is not a preemptive eulogy for One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Over the past few days—since the announcement that Windows XP will run on OLPC's XO laptop—we've noticed quite a few naysayers.
GigaOm, to pick on one in particular, said in his post that OLPC was a far-fetched idea from the start:“[I]t was being shoved down the throats of emerging economies with more dire needs, such as food, clean water and schools.” To that, I have to go with Nicholas Negroponte's answer, which I have committed to memory at this point: “It's not a laptop project; it's an education project.”
Then Om, as many have said over the past few days, hits at the availability of XP on the system. “The availability of Windows XP is different from what the people behind OLPC had set out to do—build a truly open, low-cost connected computing device for kids around the world.” Isn't an open platform one that can run any operating system? Couldn't a truly open system run Sugar and XP side by side, just like Negroponte asserts will happen?
I have always been a fan of Sugar. I had one of the first media hands-on with the system and was blown away by Sugar features like the mesh networking. Then I sent a system to Mali and I learned first-hand that kids can pick up the Sugar operating system in a matter of seconds. A girl who had never played with a laptop before, had few problems learning how to do various tasks in the OS. Next month, with the help of LAPTOP Magazine, Mali will launch a pilot program with 30 XO laptops. The systems will run Sugar. But I also want them to run XP. Why? Because most of the world uses Microsoft's operating systems.
I received an e-mail the other day from Walter Bender, OLPC's former president of software and the father of the Sugar system, who has broken away from OLPC to start Sugar Labs. He explained why Sugar has to run on the laptops: “The Sugar interface, in its departure from the desktop metaphor for computing, is the first serious attempt to create a user interface that is based on both cognitive and social constructivism: learners should engage in authentic exploration and collaboration. It is based on three very simple principles about what makes us human: (1) everyone is a teacher and a learner; (2) humans by their nature are social beings; and (3) humans by their nature are expressive.”
I couldn't agree more with Bender. When a class of Malian children use the laptops they should be able to utilize all that makes Sugar "sweet." I want them to utilize the mesh networking that allows them to create projects and collaborate on them and I want them to explore the different open-source applications.
But it also makes sense for those same children to learn a Windows operating system, so when the time comes to go to university—certainly an underlying goal of this education-geared program—they have access to the technology used among the rest of the world. Many world leaders considered this in their discretion, if indirectly, regarding the XO, which is why some have chosen Intel's Classmate. But with OLPC now supporting XP, OLPC and Sugar are revitalized. As Negroponte has said, "to enable the Sugar environment to reach as many children as possible, particularly in the poorest areas of the world, OLPC must be able to bid on educational technology contracts, some of which require that Microsoft Windows be able to run on our hardware."
Om's last point: “How will these machines compete with low-end computers and Internet devices that will run using Intel’s Atom devices?” Sure, OLPC lost in a battle with Intel and they sacrificed Intel's strong CPU power. But I've seen lots of mini-notebooks in the last months, including Intel's Classmate 2. Compared with these new systems, OLPC's hardware is a feat. Its durable components, its dual-screen technology, its alternative power sources and its innovative design make it the best laptop for the developing nations. No OS is going to change that.