Laptop plan is not child's play just yet


WIRED:WHEN THE One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) project finally shipped its famous $100 computer with a price tag closer to $200, long delays in shipping to US donors, resignations at senior levels of the organisation and a public U-turn on its original plan to spurn Microsoft Windows for Linux, most in the press wrote it off as a failure.

It was seen as a pet project of Nicholas Negroponte, the charismatic founder of the MIT Media Lab, that had grown out of hand.

Negroponte himself was prone to pursue soundbites at the expense of consistency: by the end of the project, he was announcing that "the mission is to get the technology in the hands of as many children as possible", in stark contrast to the original "It's an education project, not a laptop project" mantra.

But worse than its origins were the criticism of the software itself. Negroponte had opted for Linux and an entirely new user interface called Sugar (the rumours said that he had turned down an offer by Steve Jobs of free-to-ship version of MacOS).

Some of those who had paid $400 in the project's "Give One Get One" charitable donation scheme were shocked by the primitiveness of the software, compared to Windows or even desktop Linux systems.

Rather than a beautiful, easy-to-use system, Sugar was an overly simplified framework over a not-quite-baked set of educational applications. The OLPC seemed dead on arrival. But even with the press against it, the educational laptop project continues. Hundreds of thousands of the laptops have been shipped, from Tibet to Ethiopia, making it one of the largest Linux desktop roll-outs in the world.

And, most importantly, the project has just released its first major software upgrade, which will be distributed to new OLPCs and old. Months after most start-up companies with this level of negative press would have just curled up and died.

But the OLPC, funded by foreign government sponsorship, and developed by volunteer coders, marches on.

That, of course, might not be a good thing. Sometimes the market is rather good at putting bad ideas swiftly out of their misery. But as I've mentioned before in this column, one of the great advantages of more open

software (whether it's open standards or open source), is the growing importance of slow-cooked software.

The open-source browser Firefox is a great example. The original Mozilla project, in a commercial context, should have been shuttered long before Firefox was developed: it pretty much was shuttered, by AOL, its major sponsor.

But, still, development trundled along, fixing bugs, developing new enthusiasms, attracting young turks, accreting knowledgeable coders. And it slowly got better - far too slowly for anyone to notice, until a group of young turk mozilla coders recreated it as Firefox, and created what is now the world's second most popular web browser.

The same is true of Linux's ancient ancestors, Unix. Unix was born in the late Sixties, but most computer users would not have heard of it until the arrival of Linux and MacOS X, both of which are modern versions of its core. In the intervening decades, Unix took a long slow marinade among computing's academic community. It's a common saying among those researchers who look down on such hastily dashed out projects as Windows, that "those who do not understand Unix are condemned to repeat it badly". In everyone else's defence, Unix's smug position as a well-thought out operating system is largely due to Unix folk making all the mistakes in obscurity and then, over a period of years, backing out of them slowly.

When other commercial operating systems go over a cliff, you frequently never see them again: and certainly the market gives them no time to learn from their mistakes. Do you remember PenPoint, the up-and-coming pen-powered competitor to Windows? How about GEM, an early graphical interface for PCs? Even though these products had great ideas, they couldn't sustain an income long enough to survive. Academically sheltered, Unix could. And so it is with Negroponte's project. With everyone's attention off the OLPC, it nonetheless abides. The platform has shipped something like 400,000 laptops already.

The new software update isn't perfect, but it's much better than it was. Most "Give One, Get One" users, including many in the media, won't know about this, sadly, because they're not a school, and consequently miss out on a lot of the support that the OLPC is designed to benefit from.

The OLPC is not perfect, then, but it is getting somewhere. They're learning lessons, and the lessons they're learning are school lessons, taken from educators' experience in developing countries across the globe. The hardware is still gorgeous, especially the screen, and they're only just beginning to exploit its potential.

There was a great deal about the initial rollout of the OLPC that was badly messed-up, and if it was a strictly commercial concern, I wonder if it wouldn't have gone to the wall by now. But it wasn't, and it didn't - and I'm fascinated to see what happens next.