Now that Walter Bender has resigned from OLPC, Technology Review featured an article on the group's new president, Charles Kane. The article makes it very clear that OLPC, under the direction of Kane and Nicholas Negroponte, will definitely be seeking to deploy Windows on XOs and future products from OLPC.
While Kane wouldn't talk specifics about Microsoft, he made it clear which way OLPC is heading. "The OLPC mission is a great endeavor, but the mission is to get the technology in the hands of as many children as possible," he said. "Whether that technology is from one operating system or another, one piece of hardware or another, or supplied or supported by one consulting company or another doesn't matter."
So what does that mean for Sugar and, in fact, for the XO itself? Even naysayers (and I've never been a real proponent of OLPC's approach) have to admit that the Sugar interface and some slick pieces of hardware bring something new to the table of both portable technology and 1:1 computing. Will a Windows distribution even bother to include Sugar? As both Negroponte and Kane have pointed out, many leaders in developing countries have hesitated to adopt the machine because it doesn't run Windows. Are they even interested in a new face on a Windows core?
To be honest, I think that the objections most countries have to the XO is the opportunity cost of funding the laptops, not the OS they run. As European and South American countries increasingly embrace open source software, a case can certainly be made to keep the OLPC free and open as Walter Bender insists.
Bender says that his biggest fear is that if OLPC embraces Microsoft, it will "become just another laptop company" whose products run Windows and Microsoft-compatible programs. Negroponte says that the organization is working to ensure that Sugar can run smoothly on Windows.
Negroponte further noted that
The means of achieving that were, amongst others, open source and constructionism. In the process of doing that, open source in particular became an end in itself, and we made decisions along the way to remain very pure in open source that were not in the long-term interest of the project."
The writing on the wall is fairly clear here: apparently Windows is in the long-term interest of the project, at least as far as the current OLPC leadership understands it.
However, I can't help but believe that the OLPC mission has already been a success and doesn't need to become just another vehicle for Windows. Rather, as the Technology Review article points out,
Other computer makers, including Intel, are now developing ultralow-cost laptops. Bender says that OLPC's unique status as a nonprofit means that it should focus on developing educational tools that others can emulate. "I think what OLPC should be doing is demonstrating to the world that there is a scalable model of learning," he says. "The fact that Intel and other companies are all trying to build hardware is great. That actually means, what OLPC could do, going forward, is focus on the learning and how you scale the learning models."
Bingo. Did OLPC sell the 100 million laptops that Negroponte planned? No, nowhere close. Are there a lot of really smart people with a lot of educational and technical savvy mobilized in this project and the resulting 1:1 movement who just might revolutionize the way we use technology to teach kids in both developed and developing countries? Absolutely. Remember, OLPC spun out of an academic project. The goal isn't to make money, but rather to empower and educate kids with technological tools. It doesn't matter how many laptops they roll out themselves and getting Windows XP Home running on an XO will certainly not revolutionize teaching.
These guys are academics, not the next Dell, HP, or Lenovo; they really are perfectly suited to determining new and innovative ways to teach children. Any chance we can we leave the computer distribution to the big guns (or better yet, local OEMs) and keep the innovation in the hands of the teachers?