OLPC Restructuring and Consequences

I had the great fortune of meeting Benjamin Mako Hill at Penguicon 6.0. We exchanged cards but didn’t get a chance to speak. His Laptop Liberation presentation was good and re-inforced a lot of the philosophy of the project that I had initially learned at the plenary session on OLPC at last year’s Shmoocon. I didn’t get a chance to ask about the departure of Ivan Krstić who was part of that plenary session or about their content chief also resigning.

There was another OLPC event at which Mako showed up, what the program formally called a roundtable but was conducted more like a birds of a feather session. Some of the other attendees asked the questions I had in mind about the departures and restructuring as well as some of the rumors and issues around Windows support on the XO1.

Mako characterized the changes as a consequence of now having thousands of laptops effectively in production. This has forced a shift in focus to maintenance and other production concerns. He feels that this requires more of a focus on product and project management. This echoes some of the sentiments that Negroponte himself has voiced. Mako went further to suggest that the more innovative personalities key to the project’s early development are at odds with this change in focus. He stressed this was not a personal judgement, just an observation of what the organization now needs and how the two skill sets are largely non-overlapping.

Make also commented on the question of supporting Windows. He cited the driver here being possibly custom education software. There is apparently a fair amount of such code out there and it is unrealistic to expect schools to port it to Linux, in fact asking them to do so would be a pretty distinct barrier to getting OLPC’s laptops into many school systems. This also resonates with some of Negroponte’s own thoughts about making Sugar more operating system agnostic. He ceded that the hefty requirements of running Windows were a challenge but could not comment on much else on the technical issues involved as it is outside of his work with the project and his areas of expertise.

He also emphasized a point I first heard Krstić make in response to a similar session put to that plenary session. OLPC is about child ownership and user freedom. As counter intuitive as it may sound this leads to a position where if the laptop owner needs or wants to run a closed operating system it is not the project’s place to prevent that. In fact such lock in would actually be reducing the freedom the owner would be able to express. It may be a bit of a slipper slope, though, as this doesn’t necessarily suggest that OLPC will expend a great deal of its own resources supporting closed software, just that they will not get in the way.

In response to some of the dire predictions made in the wake of the recent departures.

[It] is in transition [continuing from his earlier remarks on the re-organization]. OLPC is actually hiring aggressively.

Mako was repeatedly positive about the project and its supporting foundation. The extent of his concern seemed to be making that transition into production sooner than they were perhaps ready for. He suggested this is likely an unanticipated consequence of the give one, get one program. In addition to some legitimate issues with the laptop itself, the nature of the charitable participants in this program has taken the XO1 into places where the project wasn’t focusing originally like corporate networks and small offices/home offices. They’ve been working to separate out issues unique to those environments as opposed to what is strictly needed by educational systems, for example WPA support and direct printing capabilities.

I have been of the recent opinion that succeed or fail, OLPC has succeeded in challenging technology manufactures to rethink some things. As Mako pointed out in his main presentation, technology is entering the developing world no matter what. The problem is that without a system like the OLPC’s laptop, that technology is mostly closed, like cell phones and portable media devices. Questions of sustainability are unaltered by adding the XO1 however its presence gives these nations a chance to control and program the rest of the cheap technology with which they are being inundated and that has got to be worth the effort alone.

3 Replies to “OLPC Restructuring and Consequences”

  1. Nice article! I’d only follow up with two points.

    First, while upbeat, I am very concerned about OLPC and about statements by Nicholas Negroponte that seem to signal a potential or upcoming change in OLPC attitudes and actions in regards to software freedom. As I said in my talk, OLPC ability to be a force for good is, in my opinion, directly connected to its existence as a free platform. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be good at all if it used non-free software — but it wouldn’t be as nearly good as it could be.

    My second point is about the use of Windows and the reasoning behind it. I’m glad I was able to convincingly describe the situation and the feelings of the advocates or defenders of a switch to Windows. That said, I was only trying to describe the reasoning, not advocate it. I understand *why* people want to use Windows, and I think it’s important for anyone involved in the debate to understand as well, but I don’t agree with it. I just wanted to make that clear.

  2. Thank you for the clarification. If you don’t mind, would you explain your role at and relationship with OLPC? I think that helps in putting your comments in context on both points.

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