xo laptopThe netbook revolution has its roots in the One Laptop Per Child project. OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte envisioned getting cheap, educational, and open source laptops into the hands of millions of children around the world. Things haven’t really worked out that way. Four years after the project begun, only 900,000 OLPC XO Laptops have been distributed to children. That’s not nothing, but it’s a drop in the bucket when compared with the tens of millions of low cost netbooks selling in developed and developing nations alike.

And that’s probably not a bad thing. The point is that the OLPC project did force PC makers to think about ways to make computers more mobile (smaller and with better battery life) and cheaper. While fewer than a million XO Laptops have been distributed, hundreds of thousands of low cost notebooks from competitors, including the Intel Classmate PC have also been sold to schools, governments, and other organizations in the market for computers for educational purposes.

In a recent interview, Negroponte told ZDNet that one of the biggest mistakes OLPC made was to design a custom Linux-based operating system called Sugar OS for the XO Laptop. The OS was designed to be easy for kids to learn and to offer educational and social tools. But it also handled power management, WiFi features, and other aspects. He says it would have been better to ship the XO with a more traditional Linux desktop environment and offer Sugar as an application that can be run on top of it.

Wayan Vota at OLPC News has another idea. He thinks the biggest mistake was calling the XO Laptop the “$100 laptop.” The name caught on like wildfire, but the OLPC Foundation was never able to bring the cost down to that level. An XO Laptop today goes for closer to $200. That’s still pretty darn cheap for any laptop by 2006 standards. But it’s not a $100 laptop, and people have spent a lot of time and energy over the last few years making fun of the so-called $100 laptop.

What do you think? Is there one big mistake that explains why millions of kids aren’t using XO Laptops in classrooms around the world right now? Or is it a series of little mistakes? Or did Negroponte & co do everything right… only to have their dream usurped by the free market?

via Slashdot

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32 replies on “Negroponte: Sugar OS was OLPC’s biggest mistake”

  1. The project was flawed from the beginning because it was focused on hardware, getting a laptop to kids. When instead it should have been focused on software. Software that teaches basic literacy, mathematics and a second language.
    The linux community wouldn’t have a clue about the latter.

    My recommendation is the Android os (or ios if apple offers it for free) and a learning platform based on the Unity game engine. Only game developers can create software that’s easy enough for kids and teachers to use.

    The hardware can come from anywhere, Unity supports arm processors too.

  2. A huge glaring part of the problem is the people whose kids OLPC is trying to help. India has nuclear weapons and modern cities. Why does an outside group need to try to give their children laptops? Many of the “have-nots” in India are kept that way by the repressive backwardness of Hinduism and its caste system- 300+Million people who are treated like lesser animals. The Indian government is usually too busy screwing over poor farmers when they want the land the people live on- why worry about education when kickbacks are the real priority. Their snotty attitude about OLPC is not surprising. Same with most of Africa. If the people are too busy fighting over who will get to rape everybody else, there is little concern about education. As for other mistakes, I think it is a mistake to claim OLPC started the netbook trend. The technologies allowing ever higher computing power with more efficient use of energy and increasing miniaturization were not thought up by the OLPC bunch. Look at the visionary pad/laptop ideas from Xerox PARC in the 70’s… the technology has been moving that way ever since. OLPC has spent too much time perfecting/ customizing when computer history shows standardization and increasingly open standards are the way to go. OLPC should attach itself to a growing Linux distribution like Ubuntu- not perfect but growing all the time. They could encourage rugged cheap new hardware, while running on standard and older hardware as well. They could work on their own additions to edubuntu, or their own educational variant to get their dream educational desktop. This way all of the work out there would add to the project, rather than requiring the “forge your own” path through the jungle, and tying everything to overly specific hardware. OLPC is very ambitious, and mistakes aside no one can deny the difficulty nor the good intentions of their goals.

  3. What do I think? I think the whole thing fell apart because OLPC suffered brain drain when the OLPC board caved in to Microsoft pressure or other parties wanting to be more “pragmatic”. That pragmatism did not work out when the free thinkers were driven away. Driven away to continue their independent passions that OLPC helped inspire. What do I think? I think you can not talk about a Open Source laptop with XP installed on it. With the inclusion of Microsoft products the information is closed down. The obviousness here is sickening.

  4. I submit that he did everything correctly (minus the things that HE FEELS were mistakes). The only thing that I FEEL was a mistake was underestimating the hostility that would come from the big boys in the commercial end of the market with regard to such a generous and noble effort. Also, it is VERY unfortunate that so few people in the United States have ever even heard of the XO laptop, the Sugar Interface, or this particular humanitarian effort. I don’t know a single person that has ever even heard of it!

    Since OLPC is not really a capitalistic endeavor in commerce, then advertising funds that would have helped saturate the market with commercial ads to announce the public service, are/were probably lacking (or totally unavailable). It was definitely NOT a complete failure, because, after all, SOME children DID actually get a laptop. Furthermore, as a Mac user, I see no reason why everyone feels that it HAD TO BE a Windows based unit. Contrary to the, “Windows is ALL there is” belief, there IS room on this Earth for alternatives and variety!

    If it WERE Windows, then it could NOT have been cheap, or free. It was the thought that counts. For all we know, he may well have approached Windows and been laughed out the door, or totally shot down. Beyond criticizing the man, what the heck have all the critics done to make this world a better place? Huh? All you critics, if you don’t like what he did, or how he did it, then come out and do something better! You know what they say. Put up, or SHUT UP! At least HE put up. What have YOU done lately?

    Either way, it is still a magnificently heartfelt and marvelously brilliant idea (not to mention a very cute CHILD’S, laptop). A brand new XO laptop is better than NONE AT ALL! I wish Nicholas Negroponte all the luck, success, and support in the world. He can always go back to the drawing board, or another humanitarian can either join him in his efforts, or pick up the torch where he left off. He certainly has my vote!

  5. I think it was a number of mistakes, or rather, miscalculations, some big, some small.

    The underlying idea was and still is, brilliant – that access to computing, like air, water, food, and shelter, has become a basic human right, for children in even the poorest communities in the world, as well as their families. That is very empowering. Many other development programs can piggyback on top of that.

    At Google Headquarters, there is a flat screen with a rotating earth showing the number of searches in real time, as peaks, colored by language, all over the globe. Night and day show up. It doesn’t take many rotations to realize that Africa is dark. No electricity, no computers, little education, negligible numbers of searches searches. It doesn’t take many rotations to realize that where the globe is dark, many needs are great.

    That said, from the point of view of one who was eager to buy into the Give One Get One program, a veteran of user groups of past operating systems, although not Linux, here are the issues that stand out for me:

    1. Poor distribution at the beginning. Had Amazon handled the first program, and advertised the second one more widely, the results might have been better.

    2. Almost no documentation. Not everyone has the time, inclination, or skills to not only learn the operating system, but develop the applications it lacks.

    3. An educational philosophy that is flawed at best, and autocratic at worst. Teachers and students should be able to use a computer as a tool. Collaboration has its place, but so does learning the basics, incluidng learning math and reading literacy in addition to computer literacy.

    4. No teacher’s tools, manuals, guidelines, lesson plans etc. Teachers a busy, and could use a lot of help.

    5. A marketing system that was the polar opposite of the stated, social learning objectives. Negroponte wanted the convenience of dealing only with large, million dollar orders from governments. These days, some of the most successful software ventures have gained ground through social marketing, one person at a time. As has, ironically, the whole netbook computer category.

    6. Irreconcilable differences with other key originators. Enough said.

    7. No plan for updating the computer hardware in year two. If the OLPC XO 1.5 had been ready last Christmas, along with the improved distribution system, it might have sold much better.

    8. Sugar was not a bad idea. It just would have helped if Sugar 1.5 had incorporated some standard features, such as a file management system along side of the “journal” approach, that would let grownups use it for real work.

    9. It’s still a great conversation piece. I carried one through an airport the first year, and had people come up to me, ranging from the grandmother of a child who had been a tester in a University of Maryland Lab, to a designer who worked with Yves Béhar of fuseproject, which designed much of the XO’s hardware, but had not seen the final version in action.

    I am eager to see what happens next!

  6. Turning down free OS X for all OLPC in 2005 (imagine an OLPC crossed with an iPhone) was their biggest mistake. OLPC wanted the word “Linux” and OLPC customers wanted the word “Windows” and they could have both met in the middle with OS X (Unix core OS like Linux, mainstream apps like Windows). Part of the reason the iPhone and iPod touch are so successful is that Apple didn’t have to build the software from scratch. The iPhone has great power management because it’s the great power management from the Mac ported over. OLPC could have started life with all of these advantages also, and all development time could have been on features the user touches. Unique OLPC features.

    Another mistake was that they tried to equip kids as if they are all programmers. The programmer kids need the least help. They will find parts of 3 old PC’s and put them together and install Ubuntu and program up a storm. The kids who need help are the other 90% who are going to be doctors, artists, business people who all have an I-T burden because of our modern world. So equipping these kids with email, a modern Web browser, an audio video player, and IM is more important than making the C language available to them. In other words, it should be more “one smart phone per child”. Communication, reading, writing, publishing are the important functions, the same as ever, just now with a digital component. Programming is just one of the things you do with a computer.

  7. Putting some sort of toggle within the OS that allowed for switching between Sugar and XFCE would have gone a very long way towards making the system more usable. Sugar is good for a collaborative classroom environment but a more traditional windows manager is ultimately more practical.

    Grousing about Windows is hilarious because XP would have not run on the machine with any kind of usability. It had a Geode processor in it.

  8. OLPC started the whole netbook fad. This was a visionary idea. All the rest were copycats.
    Maybe the OS was a bad marketing move, but if you take a look at it you’ll see it’s visionary in itself. None of the OS’s on the market fit as well on children’s minds.

    The moral of the story is that real philanthropists fail. It’s much better for the starving children in the third world to be supported by Monsanto.

  9. No Windows, no Atom. OLPC did not fail with the product but in “selling” it.
    And the politicians who finance the OLPC failed recognizing it early enough.

    Negroponte should v never stay responsible for the marketing goals of OLPC alone, because he has shown no business talent and too much idealism.
    We will need someone more realistic to take the responsibilty for the goals that OLPC had/has.
    Now that the OLPC is ready, an independent OLPC marketing team should be set to market it.
    One idea could be to staff it with some more realistic veterans from CIA and/or US Army – people with experience in foreign operations. And see how fast thinks could possibly change.

  10. negroponte is right …. the biggest setback is the closed system.
    a traditional, stable linux with thousands of ready apps like ubuntu, fedora, together with the oplc interface as a switchable app and a fix installed wine for windows apps would have been far better.
    but at the oplc project they always were stubborn and somehow very shortsighted … and still are.

  11. The XO Laptop itself was not the failure. I would say that it succeeded in proving to the world that a sub-$200 laptop was possible, and included some unique features (mesh networking, daylight-readable screen) that differentiated it from others.

    OLPC (and Negroponte) was the failure. The failure was in the promises that were never delivered — $100 price tag, do everything features, etc. The market expectation was always a notch above what was reality, so everyone kept waiting for that next improvement or even that next model release. In the meantime, Asustek (with their Eee701 largely borrowed from the Intel Classmate reference design) waltzed into the market delivering what they promise — ease of use and affordability.

    1. but the Eee701 is far more expensive, does not have the low power consumption and daylight screen does it? In remote areas, where budgets are small these things are very important and we shouldn’t just be thinkng about personal experiences to draw conclusions.

  12. XO was the start of the netbook revolution. OLPC is all about education not about a laptop. It is good, however they did not make it easy to upgrade the RAM and add a larger SSD to the device. MESH NETWORKING is great… would love to have an add-on USB wireless MeshNetworking device sold in stores (vs only way to get it via OLPC XO). If they made JUST the USB MeshNetworking device, then OLPC XO would be able VIA SUGAR to talk to SUGAR on any other machine… in fact, could have other distro, BUT THE KEY TO OLPC XO (other than power saving and Mary Lou’s Evolutionary SCREEN) is the MESH NETWORKING –

    WHY can”t we have MESH NETWORKING on all netbooks TODAY. I want that NOW.

    PS – note that on the OLPC site is a help page for how to install OPENBOX on an OLPC XO. (and keep Sugar at the same time). Very very cool.

    1. MESH NETWORKING on all netbooks TODAY ….it is eaysyly done …
      any pc can directly communicate with any other wifi device in a closed user group. but: YOU HAVE TO SETUP THE NETWORK ON THE MACHINES!
      software for such networks eg for classrooms can easyly be found on the net. some of these even as freeware and opensource. MESH NETWORKING is not a unique concept of oplc’s.

      1. That is easy, just install a recent Linux kernel on all NetBooks TODAY.
        (to quote the poster’s shout).
        The mesh networking part of the wifi standard was recently added.

  13. Pretty heated debates here on what killed OLPC. Quite simply its a combination of a number of factors.

    > Yes the laptop looks like a toy but some more traditional color choices like black and blue would have sweetened the deal.
    > You don’t need windows but you need a more convincing version of Linux than what was installed. Something more like Windows maybe Xandros or Ubuntu. Even Windows CE would not have been too bad.
    > One size fits all does NOT. Even moderate variations in style and design would have made it easier for larger orders from more diverse customers.

    I knew the OLPC project was going to fail the moment I saw the laptop. Face it, its but ugly. Even my 6 year old girl thinks so. I showed her a picture and she said “daddy its u-u-u-ugly I wan’t this one” pointing to a pink Asus 900. Thats what I got her.

    What were they thinking? If a 6 year old child can tell you the fate of a company what are they paying all those developers for? Just my two cents….

  14. I think the biggest mistake was mandatory large-scale purchasing. Even if it was more expensive, they should have solid it on an individual basis to facilitate small trial programs. Good big things come from good small things. When you eliminate the possibility of organizing good small things, you make it harder for good big things to eventually happen.

    Yes, they had give one, get one. But that was only occasionally as a special program. That’s quite different than letting anybody who wants to simply buy as many as they want at a set price.

  15. Btw, you made a big mistake: Sugar is NOT an OS.

    Its a desktop environment like KDE, Gnome, XCFE, E17 and so on.

    You are used to the proprietary OS world which give you Aero or Aqua and that’s all you get so if you only use those OS, your desktop environment is the one you are given, you have no other option.

    In the free software world, the desktop is just a piece that can be changed easily to something else.
    And even in those desktops you have choices to change more components like a window manager which generally runs on top of the windowing system.

    You can use Ubuntu which is the (fugly) Gnome desktop which looks like Mac, or you can use Kubuntu which uses the KDE desktop (which Windows users will prefer) or Xubuntu which runs the XCFE desktop.
    They are all Ubuntus except the fact that they all use different DE’s and look different. If you want, you can run Sugar as a different desktop
    (i tried it around Bubuntu 7.04 an it used Xephyr which ran the matchbox window manager in a full-screen window.)

    Sugar was NOT the OS, I believe that Fedora was (since I know Red Hat was involved). It takes a bit of time to get used to so much choice but choice is a good thing. Calling a desktop environment an OS isnt.

    Negroponte says that it shouldnt have been desktop environment but just an application but I didnt read much about the OS part.
    Of course, he also knew before they started (and it was an open project so anyone interested knew) what he was getting into so its easy to blame someone else when he’s flipflopped so often.

    1. Negroponte says that it shouldnt have been desktop environment but just an application but I didnt read much about the OS part.

      They can make it application now, .

      They designed OLPC to be closed system by SW and HW to avoid others to steal it from kids and use it for other then educational purposes.

      Their HW is great, but it is secondary for the goals .

      Now that cheap ARM netbooks are comming from China, they can make Sugar an application.

      Another issue are the business interests of american government.
      After all, if USA doesn t do OLPC right, maybe Chinese will !

  16. I think you overlook the HUGE role Microsoft and Intel played in sabotaging the project and Negroponte’s many faux pas.

    1. It didn’t have Windows. If you’re going to get these things into the hands of children who need them to learn, you may as well teach them what the world actually uses.

    This is idiotic. Learning how to use a program like OpenOffice is no different than Wordperfect or Word. You are not teaching them anything but how to use a piece of software.
    I know many kids of the people I work with who use Windows/Linux/Mac and have NO problem.
    Besides, most software disappears with time. IF you teach someone to use Wordstar or Wordperfect, does that mean they cant learn something else?
    You dont NEED Windows to learn. Its just an OS and the software is just software. Its not mohammeds left nut were talking about.

    let me guess, you only use Windows and are petrified when you see a Mac/Gnome interface or a KDE one because ‘its different’.
    Fear is an enemy of knowledge.

    Btw, Brazil is more than halfway through their Linux computer labs push (theyre built over 30,000 computers labs… basically servers with 7-8 thin clients per) which will serve 50 MILLION schoolkids and no one has died. My brother in law teaches university there and he says that 12 years ago, the majority of kids had not used Linux or free software when they entered university. This year more than HALF of his 1st year students have already WORKED on (not just used) some free software project before they started classes.

    The world is changing.

    1. — This is idiotic. Learning how to use a program like OpenOffice is no different than Wordperfect or Word. You are not teaching them anything but how to use a piece of software.
      I know many kids of the people I work with who use Windows/Linux/Mac and have NO problem. —

      trey, if anything is idiotic, it is your failure to recognize that Nate’s point on Windows is legitimate! Netbooks themselves would not have taken off at the rate that they have had it not been for Windows XP(or, more accurately, Microsoft’s fear that they would lose market-share to Linux).

      Arguments can be made either way but, personally, I would have rather seen Windows! The user-base is too large to ignore!

  17. Not every airplane built flew the first time it was tried.

    It is just time for a “re-think” on the OLPC project – –
    four years ago, you had to build one of these yourself – –

    Now you [they] could contract a private label version of
    something “known to work” and continue with the primary
    goal, not to build a computer, but to get them into the hands
    of children at no or low cost. The sort of thing an NGO does best.

  18. I can think of a few reasons for the failure:

    1. It didn’t have Windows. If you’re going to get these things into the hands of children who need them to learn, you may as well teach them what the world actually uses.

    2. The price.

    3. It looked like a toy. I can appreciate what they were trying to do here. However, if they wanted programs like the “Give One Get One” program to be successful, they should have created a machine that an adult wouldn’t be embarrassed to carry. Looks are as important as anything else, if not more.

    1. 1. It didn’t need Windows.

      2. The initial $189 was a great start. Unfortunately the pricing didn’t drop.

      3. Totally missed the point. This device was for school kids. The style was fine.

      I was a G1G1D1 participant. I believed in the vision and the device. Ivory towering thinking with no consideration for the practical is what ultimate caused it to fail.

      Nick Neg is correct. Development of the Sugar OS was indeed the biggest mistake. There were not enough development resources, the scope was way too ambitious, no drivers to support the onboard hardware properly, and developers who were not concerned about performance on the target device.

      1. It’s not about appealing to the kids. They’ll take whatever you give them.

        It’s about appealing to the people who are actually going to pay for the things.

        Sugar was a huge mistake, but it’s been proven time and time again that Linux, in the hands of consumers, is a complete failure. You could have thrown any non-Windows OS on this thing and it would have failed equally (I say this as a Linux user, but a realistic one.)

        1. Sugarlabs is winning awards and enjoying great success now that its not part of the OLPC project. This is educational software for children. It seems you don’t understand anything about educational software.

          You assertion that, “Linux, in the hands of consumers, is a complete failure” is completely false. A growing number of our customers are using Linux and we are now getting calls from across the state for pre-installed Linux systems.

          You don’t sound like a Linux user to me, you sound like a shill, and shills regularly like to inject the token “I’m a Linux user” or “I love Linux” comment in a pathetic attempt to make their shilling less obvious.

      2. Not the idea to do own desktop environment was wrong, but its wide scope.
        To cut the costs, they should have been thinking more realistic about the software – and the display of the unit. Maybe they could have avoid some unnecessary delays.
        And they should focus more on realistic marketing.

        Now OLPC could learn from the lesson Asus gave us with their EeePC product line!

    2. 1. It didn’t need Windows and could not run Windows. The hardware had to be changed and upgraded to run Windows, making it more expensive. Microsoft did not get involved because they gave a damn about children, they will resort to extortion if they think it will stop or put a tax on the use of Linux in any environment, a tax paid to Microsoft as evidenced recently by their successful extortion of Melco.

      2. The price… see point 1.

      3. Its for children…

      1. >The hardware had to be changed and upgraded to run Windows, making it more expensive.
        Yeah. $5 sure is expensive
        >Microsoft did not get involved because they gave a damn about children,
        Of course MS wanted to be involved. But they weren’t let to participate.
        Know you facts, fanboy.

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