It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom over OLPC’s future. But keep things in perspective: they aren’t as bad as they seem.
To the developers at OLPC, and the tireless volunteer community contributors unsettled by Nicholas’ plans — remember that no matter what happens, your work has not been for naught. Far from it. You brought the smiles to children’s faces in Escuela No. 109 in Florida, Uruguay. Your work astounded me with the results, after little more than half a year, in the mountains of Arahuay, Peru. Bryan Berry’s team is kicking ass on establishing a pilot in Nepal because of your work. And if you haven’t read the linked articles yet, now’s the time. Nothing can take away the real, palpable impact you’ve already had on children’s lives.
To those on the outside and looking in: remember that, though he takes the liberty of speaking in its name, Nicholas is not OLPC. OLPC is Walter Bender, Scott Ananian, Chris Ball, Mitch Bradley, Mark Foster, Marco Pesenti Gritti, Mary Lou Jepsen, Andres Salomon, Richard Smith, Michael Stone, Tomeu Vizoso, John Watlington, Dan Williams, Dave Woodhouse, and the community, and the rest of the people who worked days, nights, and weekends without end, fighting like warrior poets to make this project work. Nicholas wasn’t the one who built the hardware, or wrote the software, or deployed the machines. Nicholas talks, but these people’s work walks.
Remember that even when Nicholas talks, it is all to be taken with a fistful of salt. The SD card slot didn’t get added to the XO for Microsoft, as he is fond of saying, but because we were getting terrible read/write performance with our solid-state storage. Hardware architect Mark Foster designed a dedicated chip to speed things up; that chip, as an unanticipated bonus, made it easy to attach a camera and an SD slot. Nicholas’ recent claim of Sugar growing amorphously because it “didn’t have a software architect who did it in a crisp way” is similarly muddy: convincing him of the need for an architect is a battle Walter and I fought for months without success. The organization decided to move anyway, and extended me a written offer to take over as Chief Software Architect. Nicholas rescinded the offer unilaterally several weeks later, for reasons he refused to explain to anyone. So yes, there was no architect, but that’s because Nicholas didn’t want one. If he believes that’s the cause of Sugar’s problems, he has no one but himself to blame.
Perhaps most of all, remember that OLPC is not just a company, but also an eponymous movement. We owe Nicholas a collective debt of gratitude for starting it, but good movements are far larger than their leaders. Richard Stallman started the free software movement and helped it get on its feet, but the movement now has a life of its own — one most assuredly not beholden to Stallman’s opinions and proclamations. The One Laptop per Child movement is no different. Nicholas and Walter made people care about using technology to help education in the developing world on a global scale, and forced the industry’s hand on catering to that market despite the razor-thin margins it promises. That was noble and revolutionary of them, but the genie is now out of the bottle and taking on a life of its own.
I spent my time with people on the ground. I was the person OLPC sent to make both deployments work. Let me tell you — the people in the countries get it. They get that buying laptops is the trivial problem, and that deploying them and using them to create compelling and sustainable learning and teaching experiences are the really hard problems. That Nicholas no longer wants to tackle the hard problems because they’re hard makes not one bit of difference: they’ll get tackled without him.
Things could be better. The company could be sticking to its principles and doing what’s right. Sad as it is that this isn’t happening, it’s also ultimately immaterial. The company doesn’t matter, because the movement marches on. And learning will win. Freedom will win. Children will win. Walter is making sure of it, and I will do everything in my power to help him.
You can’t stop the signal.