Rumblings of discontent within the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project erupted to the surface last week with the resignation of chief software architect, Walter Bender. A split has formed between those, like Bender, who see the project as primarily educational, and OLPC leader Nicholas Negroponte, who wants to push as many laptops into the hands of as many children as possible, even if it means getting into bed with Microsoft. Or so it’s been characterized.
But having looked at both sides, I think what it essentially boils down to is that geeks really, really don’t like Microsoft. There would be trouble within the organization if Negroponte merely batted his eyelashes towards Redmond, never mind actively blessing Microsoft’s development of a version of XP that will run on the XO. Sure, Microsoft is the devil, and of course it doesn’t want a generation of kids in the developing world exposed to Linux. But when did promoting Linux become one of the OLPC’s goals?
Negroponte isn’t abandoning his commitment to OLPC’s software platform, Sugar. As he wrote on the OLPC Community News listserv:
Sugar needs a wider basis, to run on more Linux platforms and to run under Windows. We have been engaged in discussions with Microsoft for several months, to explore a dual boot version of the XO. Some of you have seen what Microsoft developed on their own for the XO. It works well and now needs Sugar on top of it (so to speak).
Meanwhile, Walter Bender may have resigned from OLPC, but Sugar is released under the GNU General Public License (GPL), which allows anyone to do whatever they like with it, provided credit is given where due. That’s exactly what he intends to do, and not even necessarily on the XO:
Over time there are lots of things that will happen with Sugar in terms of efficiency and platform independence. Already, the community has by and large ported Sugar to Ubuntu [a form of Linux]. You can do an “apt-get Sugar” and if you’ve put the right repositories in place, you can install Sugar on Ubuntu. There is also a live CD that some folks in Austria put together, so you can run Sugar from your CD drive. There’s a lot of discussion on the developer forums about how to make all of that happen more efficiently.
The flip side — it’s been attributed to Steve Jobs, though I never heard him say it — is that if you really care about software you have to work on hardware. Certainly there are a lot of hooks from Sugar into the OLPC hardware, because the hardware itself is pretty special. But while I think that the things that OLPC has done with the hardware are necessary for successful deployment, I think that there are compromises that can be made with other hardware in the short term. So [you could get Sugar running on] other laptops and even other computers.
So, to summarize, one side holds the position that Sugar should be able to run on other platforms, whereas the other side asserts that Sugar should be able to run on other platforms. Not much of a split, it would seem, except that you can google your way through everything said and written by Bender and I doubt you’ll ever find him advocating Windows as one of the platforms on which Sugar should run. In fact, as he also wrote in Xconomy:
I think the culture around free software is actually a powerful culture for learning, and one of my goals from the very beginning of the project was to try to instill in the education industry some of the culture and technology and morals of the open source movement. I think it would greatly enhance the learning and education industry and their ability to engage teachers and students. So many different things are tied up in this concept. It’s both about freedom, and the freedom to be critical. Criticism of ideas is a powerful force in learning, and unleashing that is, I think, an important part of the OLPC mission.
So there you have it. It’s not about the XO, and it’s not about Sugar — both sides are committed to both those manifestations of the OLPC project. But even if you could get Sugar to run as an application suite on Windows, with its own program manager and activities journal, there are those in the OLPC project, and others who felt so strongly about these matters that they had to leave, who would still be opposed. These are the ones who believe that open source software in general is critical to the mission of education, and that closed source software, especially that of a convicted monopolist corporation like Microsoft, is not only undesirable, but detrimental to that mission.
So when Negroponte characterizes his opponents as “open-source fundamentalists,” he’s not entirely wrong. A less inflammatory term would be preferable, though — say, “people uncompromisingly committed to the empowerment of educators and students through the freedom which open-source software provides.” That’s a bit more of a mouthful, but it does sound much nicer, doesn’t it?