No One Laptop Per Child Eulogy Here

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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.

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  • Jeff Meunier, happy XO owner Says:

    It seems that many here are missing the point. These laptops are for children, hence the name One Laptop Per *Child*, not one laptop per adolescent, or one laptop per university applicant. By way of analogy, does anybody complain about giving fat crayons to little kids? Of course not. ("But when they get to university, they won't know how to use a pen!") Think about it. If any of these children grows up using Sugar on the XO and actually makes it all the way to university, will he or she have *that* much trouble learning to use Windows? Will a university deny entrance to a student who can rewrite parts of an open-source operating system but may not know that in order to shut down Windows you must press Start? The argument to put Windows on an XO for the sake of the kids is so full of holes it's transparent.

    The simple fact is that Microsoft wants Windows on these things in order to kill off the whole project. An XO with Sugar can do almost anything a child wants it to do. An XO with Windows? Can't do squat, at least not in comparison to Sugar (if you haven't used Sugar on an XO, then you have *no* idea). Sugar is fun, Windows is not. Consequently, Windows-based XO laptops will sit idle, the OLPC project loses credibility, XO orders get canceled, Microsoft execs wring their hands with glee. No potential competitors growing up in *this* country!

    Furthermore, since an XO with Windows can run MS Office and other software that suits adults just fine, in a town with very few (or no) computers it's a near certainty that the adults will appropriate all those idle Windows-based XOs for themselves in order to put the family finances or the town budget into Excel (cuz you *know* Microsoft will ship Office on each one). The corrupt government officials and poor parents in 3rd-world countries get their free computers, the corrupt corporations in the US get to kill off another competitor, everyone's happy. The problem is that the kids will be back where they started, growing up without the ability to challenge the technological status-quo, which of course does keep the governments and corporations very happy.

    The biggest, brightest, free-thinking minds in the whole world are growing up right now in developing nations. The XO and Sugar are about letting those kids learn, invent, and express themselves, not to grow up to be cubicle-dwelling drones.

  • mdizzy Says:

    I think that sugar and windows should be offered as a dual-boot or at least one=or-the-other setups. I have experimented with the sugar os and think that it is imporant for kids to be gien the tools to understand how a computer works first and foremost. I love that the operating systems has a terminal built in. The addition of several coding programs are also a bonus.

    The incorporation of mesh networking and collaborative based software is a huge reason why Sugar is lovely. It is also important that the kids learn these skills because online collaboration is the future both in the developing worlk and in the industrialized world offices.

    The problems with the XO laptop, however, are that many of the programs are insufficient for the longer term uses of the computer. Sugar is great for 1st-5th graders, but what about high schoolers? I don't htink that sugar has the sophistication to handle programs which people will need at later ages. Later in life people need to at least know some windows programs. I can't imagine skype/voip ever being brought to Sugar (thought don't know if the processor would be fast enough for it). The limitations of advanced programs lead one to want more; most likely through a windows setup, but maybe a ubuntu system could work.

  • dominik halbherr Says:

    if the make that with a cheap cpu capable for nice graphics and compatible to x48 os´s it will be a big hit.

    the general layout is promising and upcome of better cpu´s from the pda sector with new multimedia-codecs couls make this thing cheaper than 200 dollars including wifi, mesh/ bluetooth linkup to allkinds of 3g/ public internet devices .. the truely nneded cellphone extention anybody was looking out for at a pricetag of 1/3 rd of an i-phone.

    if it runs android i´ll buy one.

  • Ma Anders Says:

    While those of us living in tech rich environments can afford to be somewhat tech snobbish, expert literacy in Windows applications could well be the difference between getting into one of the limited spots at the only university in a country or consigning another generation to whatever subsistence work the lack of education will cause.

    The reality is, whether by purchase or theft, most foreign universities use M$ products for their classes.

    Some enlightened places have switched to OpenOffice and the like, but they aren't the majority yet.

    There are orders of magnitude more university admission applications than spots in many of the XO target nations, particularly when considerations is given that scholarship money will be required. Keep in mind - in many of the places where XO/Sugar will be used, that ONE computer will get shared by everyone in the household because they can't afford another one. XO will transition from a kids computer to an everything computer by necessity.

    Many of these locales still consider a US/European/Canadian education the benchmark and will want their kids to be more than qualified on the dominant tools in the industrialized world - it will be a source of accomplishment and pride as well as a discriminator for scholarships in-country.

    Finally consider that the elite of the coutry who do not get educated abroad will be in these in-country schools as well and will be literate on the M$ products.

    Rather than see a kid lose out due to the (justified) alarm raised by including a product from a clearly commercially aggressive company, I'd rather make sure that these kids have ALL the tools - including Windows and M$ product literacy - necessary to change their lives and the lives of their families for generations. If M$ makes Sugar and the like more valuable, so much the better.

    Sometimes the Devil gets in the room, even when you're watching. The key is to keep close to an exit door and run like heck when the opportunity arises. Once XO (in whatever configuration) begins to gain critical mass via shipments, much of this will begin to settle and M$ won't be settling near the top because the country government's themselves won't want it.

  • Kevin Royston Says:

    I really think that mostly we are 'supporting Windows' here, whereas we should be supporting Open-source ALL software should be ? Windows came from Mac , Ubuntu, Xwindows added a GUI for users to interface & Wine runs Office, Now most have Vistarised XP/2K & Linux OS/XP GUI's. What does this tell me, a Technical support engineer,.. that People choose what they like, no matter what U offer !
    I think that OLPC should support Sugar & Open source - primarily, then offer MS as an alternate, or GUI ! If one looks @ Nok.., Ht., smartphones, Symbian Linux app's are growing daily. So it is with Sugar etc!
    I believe there is a time to teach ' windows ' & ' office ' ,without ' locking down ' our childrens brains!
    Let them decide what environment they prefer, as long as they learn e-Nglish they will all share ideas!!
    If we try to re-create ' Babylon ' we will be up against a ' Higher Power ' ..again, get confused & FAIL !!

  • Andy Dent Says:

    Negroponte has done exactly what Apple achieved with the Intel Mac - be able to satisfy a purchasing requirement "OLPC must be able to bid on educational technology contracts, some of which require that Microsoft Windows be able to run on our hardware". That allows people to OK purchasing these machines without going through the battle of getting that requirement removed from the tender.

    "Be able to run" does NOT say 'must be installed running". Like the dual-boot Mac, the fact that any machine can at any time be booted into Windows means the Windows-oriented bureaucrats have no way to exclude them on the basis of Windows incompatibility.

    Anecdotally, very few of the Macs which were bought on the basis that they COULD run Windows end up running it other than occasionally. I expect the same with the XO Laptop.

  • Darin Lang Says:

    OS is becoming more and more irrelevant every day. Windows is especially useless in this scenario because Sugar provides a learning experience where the kids will be able to rewrite their OS to suit them and the world will likely be enriched. Windows on the other hand has done little to advance computers which don't seem to have changed much in the last 10 years. Old is old and it tends to stay that way hardening into an edifice of its glory days. Empowering the young blood will enlighten and enliven us all in ways we can't even imagine apparently, since it isn't even hinted at............

  • Kospi Says:

    What a load of bunkum. Ms. Stern should work for Microsoft. Steve Ballmer couldn't have written a better defense of XP in OLPC. Mr. Negroponte appears to have lost sight of the goals of the OLPC project when he says, “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.” So the people this project was meant to help are subordinated to the market of richer countries who can pay for it. That is a business decision which provides the best illustration of why the OLPC project is suffering. If OLPC has to make a profit first and help poor children second it has been hijacked and should be abandoned and the altruism that inspired it be allowed to reassert itself.

    I heard about this really great foundation which had billions of dollars and was set up to do exactly this kind of thing. You know, fund projects so they didn't have to rely on business principles. What was its name? The Bill and Melinda somebody foundation? I heard it had $30 billion and was given another $30 billion by some rich guy named Buffet. WOW. $60 billion. How much do you think it would cost to fund the whole OLPC project? They could do it. I wonder why I haven't heard that story in the news?

    The assertion, '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.' How many of these children from the poorest countries on earth are ever going to get the chance to attend university? Seriously. And by the time they do why do you believe Microsoft will still be the dominant operating system and business software? Why is it 'certainly' an underlying goal of the project? OLPC will never achieve that goal alone. Nor was it ever meant to achieve that goal. You seem to have a very twisted idea of what OLPC can achieve.

    If you cannot write objectively become a PR agent and be as subjective as you like. Please stop wasting our time writing this kind of biased drivel.

  • Richard Chapman Says:


    That report by is at odds with the one from which puts Linux market share at 2.02%. That's a far cry from's .68%. Do you think NA's figure would have been closer to W3C's if Red Hat was NA's primary partner rather than Microsoft? The companies who fall for such wishful thinking and sponsor endorsed reports are running out of oxygen. The people creating those reports and the analysts who align themselves with them are not endearing themselves to those who have found a better way to create and market software. They will be the future employers.

  • Shawn Says:

    Let's see some fact figure:

    Like or not, the majority of the "wonderful" business world is using Windows. As an enterprise IT guy who also deal with purchasing contracts in years, I have to speak out the not-so-welcome truth -- The overall cost of hardware/software/network/server/maintenance/upgrade/training/scalability is lower. That's why biz stuck with it. Mac and Linux haven't really come up such package to compete against Microsoft. A couple of Mac/Linux computers at home or school have not much weight when it comes to the real business.

  • ChrisInBelgium Says:

    "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"

    What a false conclusion! So my six-year old daughter who is doing wonderfully well at home using our Mac and several Linux laptops will be less capable to go to university than other children, based on the fact that the 'rest of the world' uses Windows?? Sorry, makes no sense to me. Putting money in Gates and Ballmers piggy-bank doesn't help you in any way.

    Give the next egeneration of kids time to grow up and see how much Microsoft Windows will still matter.

  • Trevor Jasper Says:

    "The systems will run Sugar. But I also want them to run XP. Why? Because most of the world uses Microsoft’s operating systems."

    Why do you want them to run an operating system that the vendor is not committed to supporting beyond this year? Will that operating system STILL be relevant and dominant in 5-10years time when these children get to university? Sugar and FOSS are the future because they evolve and adapt - they're driven and shaped by people who make what they want to use. Surely, we should be giving them a grounding in what will be relevant for them for the future, not what is relevant for us? for now?

    Microsoft's pressure to put XP onto these laptops is, I believe, another push from a convicted monopolist to lock another generation into its clutches. Microsoft can see the future is with Sugar/XO/FOSS which it's trying to kill/choke off from the next generation.... It's sad to think that the requirements for learning MS are to interoperate with everyone else using MS. That's not the future - even MS Office will support ODF soon - so lets try and get children involved with the future not the past.

  • Richard Chapman Says:

    I've taken a quote from: The Xerox "Star": A Retrospective. You can find it here:

    "Every user's initial view of Star is the Desktop, which resembles the top of an office desk, together with surrounding furniture and equipment. It represents a working environment, where current projects and accessible resources reside. On the screen are displayed pictures of familiar office objects, such as documents, folders, file drawers, in-baskets, and out-baskets. These objects are displayed as small pictures, or icons."

    Foisting this approach on the children of developing nations is Western centric thinking at its worst. If a multi billionaire decided to provide computers to Peruvian children in 1985 and contracted Xerox to design the interface, do you think it would it be based on the "desktop metaphor"? Is it good educational practice to inadvertently teach children how to be good executive secretaries in a Western culture?

    One of Sugar's best features is that it isn't XP. It only gets better from there.

    I hear the argument that these poor Sugar-indoctrinated kids will be at a great disadvantage when they finally get into the workforce. Not the way I see it. It's the "desktop metaphor" drones who will be working for the free thinking "Sugar" leaders.

  • Anthony Says:

    "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."

    Sorry for the rant, but that's a horrible reason. This is equivalent to saying people who use Mac and Linux are destined to not be able to get through university. Students don't need Microsoft software anymore than they need a particular brand of calculator, or a particular brand of pencil. Can you honestly name any skill that you can learn on Microsoft that you can't learn on Mac or Linux?

    As a horrible analogy, that's like asserting that we should only be teaching children in English or Chinese because when they leave their country, because the vast majority of people will not be speaking their local dialect. This is easily refuted: If you learn addition in Farsi, French or Swahili, you're still learning a concept that is independent of the language in which you learn the concept.

    The same thing is true for operating systems. If you learn a spreadsheet like x-tables for Mac, you have a good basis for using Openoffice calc, MSExcel or any other spreadsheet that comes along. This is poor justification for suggesting having a windows version on the OLPC is any better than a linux or mac based OS.

    More importantly, In terms of cost and encouraging the children to learn to understand how the computer works, it's a significant setback.

  • Brian Kemp Says:

    "The systems will run Sugar. But I also want them to run XP. Why? Because most of the world uses Microsoft’s operating systems."

    That is not a very good reason. The people that are used to Microsoft's Operating Systems want them to run Microsoft's Operating systems, because they believe that it is necessary to interoperate.

    Many schools in the U.S. teach children how to use Microsoft Word and call that teaching children how to use A Word Processor. The difference is both subtle and profound. (Children who are taught the latter know how to use any program with that functionality. Children who are taught the former only know how to use one program.)

    The XO is teaching children how to use A Computer, not how to use Microsoft Windows.

  • tom redding Says:

    please send me more info on the XO-2 and a Phone # to contact someone
    tom redding

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