Troubles at “One Laptop Per Child”

One of the most ambitious, public-spirited tech projects of recent years, the One Laptop Per Child project attracted a great deal of enthusiasm over the past several years for its mission to bring millions of cheap and sturdy laptops to kids in developing nations. Already, some 600,000 laptops have been sold to the governments of Peru, Uruguay, Mexico, and other poorer nations. A key part of the project has been its exclusive reliance on open-source software. The idea is to let kids tinker with the software and learn collaboratively, while letting the open source community help improve the software over time.

CC License by Scott Beale Laughing Squid, ND,SA, from Flickr

Now this grand vision is in jeopardy. The project’s director, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab, recently struck a deal with Microsoft to put the Windows operating system on the laptops as well. The move has led to the resignation of two key project leaders and provoked outrage among thousands of volunteer-programmers. Will the XO laptop (as it is sometimes called) simply become an ingenious marketing vehicle for Microsoft to reach young customers in developing countries? That is the fear and suspicion among many disappointed hackers.

The charges and counter-charges are now flying. Negroponte accuses the hacker community of becoming “much too fundamentalist about open source….Our mission is not open source. Our mission is children and learning.” But programmers and other supporters of OLPC believe that an admirable, once-idealistic project has sold-out. Microsoft doesn’t really care about education in the developing world, they charge, so much as they want to get young consumers hooked on its proprietary software. What better way to reach the future consumers of poorer countries — and steer them away from open-source competitors — than to introduce Windows through a feel-good, charitable project?

It is difficult to parse out the arguments because there are many complexities. Microsoft’s Windows will not be replacing the Linux operating system designed for the XO laptop; both will now be available. There will be a “dual boot” system on the laptop to allow either to be loaded. But given Microsoft’s massive marketing clout, it should be no surprise which operating system will become more popular. Once the laptop’s suite of educational software applications — called “Sugar” — are able to run on Windows, will children care about Linux at all? Will programmers want to contribute new code for Sugar applications if their work will simply serve to extend Window’s market franchise?

Many techies lament that the XO hardware was not designed to run the Window’s “bloatware,” and so the functionalities of the project are being undermined. Others fear that the XO laptop will serve to groom children to become compliant “knowledge workers” for companies who use Windows. After all, they will already know Windows.

The contempt for Negroponte and OLPC is dripping from many comments to be read at, the tech site for hackers. A sample: “[This deal] is like giving money and time to a charity called ‘one meal per child’ and find out it has decided to use your contribution to bring dollar off coupons for McDonalds happy meals.”

Was Microsoft putting pressure on governments to insist that the XO laptop come with Windows? Did the sagging sales commitments for the laptop prod Negroponte into the deal with Microsoft? Such issues are not likely to be debated for sometime, with no clear answer emerging. The biggest risk is that the programmer community will become so alienated from the project that they won’t continue to volunteer their time or energy.

One of the more thoughtful, extended commentaries on this sad episode comes from Ivan Krstic, who served as “director of security architecture” for OLPC.

Krstic writes: OLPC should be philosophically pure about its own machines. Being a non-profit that leverages goodwill from a tremendous number of community volunteers for its success and whose core mission is one of social betterment, it has a great deal of social responsibility. It should not become a vehicle for creating economic incentives for a particular vendor.

The point is made that “replacing naturally reproducing corn with Monsanto sterile corn, or tap water with bottled water, or Linux with Windows is the same crap in three different fancy labels. You turn something the individual naturally owns and controls into something he cannot supply for himself which you can then sell to him.”

A sad turn for OLPC. Who knows if it will be able to pull out of this self-inflicted tailspin, but the open-source community has every reason to be disillusioned and angry.