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Negroponte Sees Sugar As OLPC's Biggest Mistake 268

Posted by timothy
from the neat-tech-but-has-some-drawbacks dept.
griffjon writes "In an interview, Nicholas Negroponte claims that the biggest mistake OLPC made was the revolutionary Red Hat-based Sugar desktop environment — instead, he says, they should have built Sugar as an application that ran on a 'vanilla' Linux OS. Some disagree."
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Negroponte Sees Sugar As OLPC's Biggest Mistake

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  • by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:45PM (#28759833)
    Wow, my first thought was he must be on his deathbed and trying to scam his way into heaven. Then, I saw the first name.
  • Obvious (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:47PM (#28759859)

    The biggest OLPC mistake was Negroponte.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Damn, you beat me.
      But it is so true.
      He was the one that doomed the entire project.
      It started off fine, then as each quarter went by, the project just faded.
      Then along came Wintel with its axe and the rest is history.

      But of course, their biggest mistakes were selling to "Third World" only, and not doing it for profit. (seriously, not-for-profit? Fuck hearts, fuck decency, not making a profit is suicide in computing, hardware especially in this case since this was the only thing that was bought, ever)
      I knew

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:48PM (#28759879)

    Things whent downhill the second they started working with MS.

    Seriously, they should have stuck to ultra-cheap durable laptops, rather then try to cater to MS's Windows. They lost their focus and thats the end of them.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      So until they chose to offer a machine that ran Windows you feel it was a widly successful project? You base this on what data?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        You base this on what data?

        The data he pulled from his open (source) asshole.

    • by SoCalChris (573049) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:42PM (#28760637) Journal
      They didn't just lose focus, they lost a lot of goodwill by working with MS.

      Personally, I think their biggest mistake was not selling it to first world consumers. I know a lot of people who would have liked to buy one, but couldn't. This was a fatal mistake since their plan required being able to produce large enough amounts of these to be able to sell them cheaply, and they were turning away the people who were willing and able to buy at the time.
      • by PCM2 (4486) on Monday July 20, 2009 @04:38PM (#28761533) Homepage

        Personally, I think their biggest mistake was not selling it to first world consumers. I know a lot of people who would have liked to buy one, but couldn't. This was a fatal mistake since their plan required being able to produce large enough amounts of these to be able to sell them cheaply, and they were turning away the people who were willing and able to buy at the time.

        I think this is only a symptom of the biggest mistake, which was a flawed vision of how this project needed to work. Negroponte thought he could swan into the offices of big-time politicians in third-world countries and just talk them into buying these computers en masse, even while he insisted they were not really computers (and could not run Windows) but educational tools. Educational tools? At $100 a head (and climbing)? How many of these countries are investing $100 per student to build schools? What's more, how well has this model ever worked for vaccines, or malaria nets, or cooking stoves? The only way Western countries have managed to bring these things to the poorest people of the world is for independent charities to strap on their boots and go deliver them by hand. Governments are not going to do it for you.

        Further, and more to your point, so you put a $199 laptop into the hands of a child of a family that doesn't earn $199 in six months. What then? How much is that kid going to learn about computer programming, open source, and all that other good stuff, when the fields need to be ploughed? One of the main reasons people in third-world countries have lots of kids is that they need them, particularly in areas where people are regularly knocked out of commission by malaria for half the year. So how long is it going to be before that family sells the OLPC?

        And then what? Exactly. The OLPC ends up in the hands of ... someone who can afford to buy it. This is Negroponte's real biggest mistake: Denying the basic forces of economics.

        If, on the other hand, he had put them into every Wal-Mart -- or screw that, Walgreen's -- and every souk and ever bazaar, in the teeming millions, it might have had a shot. The only way to counteract the economic forces in the poorer regions is for not just the cost, but the value of the device to be low... and the only way to do that is to bump up supply. Keep focused on making the devices virtually ubiquitous, as commonplace as bicycles. In short, the OLPC project needed a lot more people on board and a lot more money backing it. It needed the participation of international charities and it needed to be subsidized by people buying the devices here (at a "novelty" markup, even).

        Instead, they went with the "I just need to go shake hands with Nice General Abouda, and he'll help us out" model. Seems like a recipe for failure, to me.

        • by Rich0 (548339) on Monday July 20, 2009 @05:07PM (#28761985) Homepage

          Yup - the give one get one was a bad idea. The idea was that an OLPC was so nice to have that rich people would pay double to get one - that just wasn't the case. Sure, they should have definintely made it easy to donate towards giving one away (and in fractional values less than one whole unit), but they should also have sold them to anybody willing to pay for one.

          The whole "if they want one they can pay for two" thing just caused people to not pay for any, and it lowered their production volumes which worked against them as well. As you said, if this became one of the top 5 selling computers in the first world it would have been much easier to sell it in the 3rd world, and maybe they could actually have sold it for $100.

          Not being able to make it as cheap as was originally planned also killed them. Once you get into the $200 range you're almost at the point of competing with Netbooks (which, amazingly enough, are actually sold at Walmart).

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Locutus (9039)

          get a clue buba, the world is not all poor and starving or wealthy and not starving. There are probably more places around the world where there's enough food, basic schooling, but little to no electricity. I even think there was a Peruvian village which made the press when interviews of the fathers of the kids who were getting OLPC XO's were originally going to take them away until they saw how much they were learning. The deal was they parents had no idea what the kids were learning because there were no

      • by westlake (615356) on Monday July 20, 2009 @06:14PM (#28762855)

        They didn't just lose focus, they lost a lot of goodwill by working with MS.

        The push for XP came from the education minister - the guy who is expected to sign a purchase order for 100,000 units.

        This was a fatal mistake since their plan required being able to produce large enough amounts of these to be able to sell them cheaply, and they were turning away the people who were willing and able to buy at the time.

        The XO-1 was something of a cross between an e-book reader and a netbook - when neither product was clearly defined or particularly economical to produce.

        The first to dive off the pier-
        usually misses the deeps, hits his head on a rock and drowns.

        The netbook may still lack a clearly defined market: Many netbook buyers aren't happy [chron.com] [June 21]

        It wouldn't be entirely unfair to describe sales of the Linux netbook as "a flash in the pan."

        OLPC needed to sell millions of units each year to avoid being lapped by its commercial competitors. I don't think that was ever going to happen.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by dominator (61418)

      Their working with MS amounted to, what - adding a $2 MD card reader to the XO? I think that's all that it changed in terms of the hardware plan, anyway.

      I have an XO. The card reader is bloody useful, if you ask me.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Locutus (9039)

      nope, MIcrosoft was working against them well before OLPC drank the Windows cool-aid. In and around 2004 and 2005 Microsoft signed multimillion dollar deals with the Egyptian government tying them to Microsoft Windows. The OLPC finishes the OLPC and goes to Egypt to take them up on their orginal MOU for 1 million units and each Egyptian government official now asks if the XO runs Windows and says it must run Windows or they won't buy it.

      Both Microsoft and Intel did a great job at blocking fulfillmen

  • by recoiledsnake (879048) on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:52PM (#28759933)

    From the article(writer's words, not Negroponte's):

    The "$100 laptop" term was the OLPC marketing failure. If the XO was again called the "Children's Machine", or better yet "the best educational tool for primary school children in the developing world", which isn't as catchy as "$100 laptop" but much more accurate, he would be crowing about multiples of millions of childrens, not just about one.

    But calling it something like "Children's Machine" instead of "$100 laptop" might not have given it the chance of catching investor's or public's eye and might have died a death similar to many other types of custom machines. And running it on top of regular distros is not really feasible because the requirements for the OLPC were like 1 GB NAND flash drive and 256 MB. Run Ubuntu on a 8 year old machine now and you will realize that it's exactly very usable, even for web browsing.

  • I now have an inexplicable craving for cookies.

  • by Useful Wheat (1488675) on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:54PM (#28759965)

    Its a shame Sugar didn't turn out to be as popular as it could have been. I know as a kid I used to play with the computer for hours on end, changing settings and playing with QBASIC (gorillas anyone?). By giving children an open source OS to play with (as well as some kind of instruction) they might have really had the opportunity to learn something.

    However, in terms of the OLPC goal, they should of gotten on their knees and begged for Windows XP. Giving children all around the world laptops is the more important goal than spreading FOSS, and the lack of a windows environment is what helped its competition grow and crush the project. I remember at least one major sale was blocked because Intel's competing laptop (which was more expensive) had a windows environment. If they would of dual booted sugar, the children would of found it and learned it. If anything else, just to annoy their parents.

    • by Darkness404 (1287218) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:07PM (#28760165)
      Sure, but in the end, only OSS can really take them out of poverty if they want to use technology as their primary way of making a living. Don't get me wrong, you can make money using MS's stuff, but only when you really have something else to offer. For example, a supermarket may use MS technologies to keep track of inventory, there a computer is a tool, not a primary means of living. If the goal is to teach children how to make a living with technology, F/OSS is the way to go.
    • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris.beau@org> on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:17PM (#28760327)

      > However, in terms of the OLPC goal, they should of gotten on their knees and begged for Windows XP.

      No, that is a loser. Enslaving another generation to Redmond's crappy insecure products isn't doing anyone a favor. But anyone with a room temp IQ could have told ya Sugar was a sure loser.

      1. It LOOKED like something Fisher Price (or perhaps VTech) would sell. Now FP does know a thing or two about building products for children so that isn't totally meant as an insult. But it made it damned hard to pitch the thing as a 'real' laptop.

      2. It is only now approaching a stable state. Long after it's window of opportunity (at least in the OLPC project) is closed. The lesson here is that building a laptop 'from scratch' is a lot simpler than building an entire new user inteface and applications suite from scratch.

      Then there were the additional mistakes of OLPC:

      1. As others have noted, pitching a "$100 laptop' and then failing to deliver anywhere in the ballpark is an instant credibility killer.

      2. Failing to understand that cutting both Intel and Microsoft out was going to make it all but impossible to sell to corrupt third world governments. It doesn't mean you can't do it but you damned well better have a real plan for dealing with that reality. If OLPC had any such plan it was to wave the Penguin banner to force Microsoft to give cut rate pricing. But it isn't even clear they were even thinking that much.

    • by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:29PM (#28760459) Homepage Journal

      Giving children all around the world laptops is the more important goal than spreading FOSS

      If you give a child a laptop, it'll last a few years. If you teach a child to use open source software, you've given her technology for a lifetime.

      Ultimately, the hardware is going to be a trivial part of this project. We've already seen the price of commercial laptops (netbooks) come very close to the $100 price point on its own, and it's going to get cheaper. The value of software is much more stable. Whatever a spreadsheet program was worth to me in 1999, it's worth the same thing to me today. Especially if it's open source, which means that I've got the latest version without shelling out another $500. How much do you think the laptop I bought in 1999 is worth today?

      • by westlake (615356) on Monday July 20, 2009 @06:49PM (#28763213)

        If you give a child a laptop, it'll last a few years. If you teach a child to use open source software, you've given her technology for a lifetime.

        There is almost nothing of interest in open source that isn't routinely ported to Windows or begins as a native Windows app.

        But there is quite a lot in FOSS that remains second-tier at best.

        FOSS is attractive to programmers. But it hasn't hasn't solved the problem of recruiting and supporting first-rate talents with other skills.

        Even in its own domain it has real trouble competing with the tightly integrated solutions offered by Apple and Microsoft.

        iLife for off-hours play. MS Office tools for every task at work.

        "No assembly required -" all the pieces are in place.

        Whatever a spreadsheet program was worth to me in 1999, it's worth the same thing to me today

        This is true only if your job description hasn't changed in the last ten years.

    • by pembo13 (770295)

      > However, in terms of the OLPC goal, they should of gotten on their knees and begged for Windows XP

      The equivalent of donating large amount of foreign food to Africa

    • by mhall119 (1035984)

      Giving children all around the world laptops is the more important goal than spreading FOSS

      Neither of those was the goal of the OLPC project. The goal was to provide locally sustainable access to information and education. Providing them with Windows would not have met that goal.

  • by nimbius (983462) on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:55PM (#28759971) Homepage
    shithead who decided microsoft windows simply MUST run on the OLPC in 60 days?? and now his professional evaluation of the open source operating environment he wanted to replace is that it sould have been sitting atop vanilla linux??

    whats left? a big bold redmond boilerblate on the case that says "fuck you red-hat" with clippy waving the bird?!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      whats left? a big bold redmond boilerblate on the case that says "fuck you red-hat" with clippy waving the bird?!

      Can I have a picture of that - I run Linux (Kubuntu) but I think it would be cool.

  • by mcrbids (148650) on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:55PM (#28759979) Journal

    Compatibility is a very, very important feature. And the more complex something is, the more important compatibility becomes!

    Every technology has its "API" - the specific interface between it and its environment. And it's very, very, very important to ensure that this "API" is consistent with existing implementations of the technology in order to be successful.

    We have many different models of cars, all with their respective features, at price points that range from $2,000 to $200,000 and this is OK because they all have steering wheels, gas/brake pedals for the right foot, and will fit on a standard road.

    Take *any* of these basics out of the equation, and you suddenly have a non-starter. The interface between a car and the gas station is but one simple parameter, and yet electric car company startups have come and gone simply because this simple interface breaks.

    When looking at an operating system, it's very, very important to maintain compatibility between the operating and applications, sure, but it's also important to maintain compatibility between the operating system and its USERS. It's vexing for users to switch from MacOS to Windows, or from Windows to MacOS, and both have long-established, entrenched interfaces that they are all *very* slow to change. Windows still has it's "X" window kill switch in the top right corner, etc.

    With this in mind, it's not a surprise that a whole new graphical interface for a start up caused all kinds of problems. Sure, it's innovative, logical, easily learned, etc. The meta-language Esperanto has all these qualities, yet we all still speak English, with all of its spelling oddities and grammatical exceptions and cruft from its thousand-plus years of history.

    • by jpmorgan (517966)

      Forget the X in the top right corner. The top left corner in Windows 7 is icon-free, as Windows has been since Vista. Yet you can still double click there and the program will close, just like it did back in Windows 3.1.

    • by Darkness404 (1287218) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:13PM (#28760259)

      It's vexing for users to switch from MacOS to Windows, or from Windows to MacOS, and both have long-established, entrenched interfaces that they are all *very* slow to change. Windows still has it's "X" window kill switch in the top right corner, etc.

      Right, because we all know the villages in Africa must all be using Windows XP and every kid knows how to use them. Sure when marketing this to the first world, you must keep that in mind, but that isn't the goal of OLPC. The goal is to take children who have only heard of computers, perhaps have seen a computer, but don't know how to use one. You aren't taking the average guy who works with Windows at work, uses Windows at home and giving him the Sugar UI, you are taking a poor kid with no knowledge of computers and giving them a computer.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by mcrbids (148650)

        OK, so picture this: pool kid in village gets computer from some rich guy where clothes with pockets. He sees his computer with Sugar, and sees rich guy using a Dell and WinVista. Right away, he's going to know that what he's got isn't the "good stuff", because if it was, Mr Richie-pants (whose pockets even have threaded styling... NICE!) would be using it too.

        Sure, poor kid will take whatever he can get, but he sure won't hesitate to get to something that runs Vista if he can possibly arrange it. Nobody, n

        • by Darkness404 (1287218) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:34PM (#28760535)
          So? Yes, the OLPC computers -are- second rate. They are second rate because its nearly impossible to get anything more powerful/rugged than the OLPC without costing a lot more money. A lot of humanitarian work has to be second-rate otherwise it wouldn't get done. All that work done cheap so you can help more people. I'm sure that we would think the water tastes funny if we were to go to a village with newly installed clean water treatments.

          Sure, poor kid will take whatever he can get, but he sure won't hesitate to get to something that runs Vista if he can possibly arrange it.

          Sure, but its an unreachable dream. To put it another way, I've seen people driving Ferraris, I know for certain I can't afford a Ferrari, instead I drive a used generic SUV. Is the Ferrari faster, does it have a better interior, yes. Sure, if I can find a Ferrari for $5,000 I'll buy it, but I highly doubt that I will ever see one that cheap. Does that make me feel "second rate" that I can't afford a car that costs as much as my house? In some ways, sure. But you live within your means. If that means having to use a OLPC laptop rather than a quad core with 3 gigs of RAM, something tells me that the poor person in Africa really doesn't care.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by IntlHarvester (11985) *

        Right, because we all know the villages in Africa must all be using Windows XP and every kid knows how to use them. Sure when marketing this to the first world, you must keep that in mind, but that isn't the goal of OLPC.

        The biggest myth surrounding this project is that these laptops would go soley into dirt huts in the middle of the jungle somewhere. In reality, a lot of the interest was coming from developing countries that have commercial economies.

        Not that WinXP was the only solution, but when the customer base is more interested in teaching children word processing and office applications, it's obvious that a specially designed edu-ware interface missed the mark.

  • by RobotRunAmok (595286) on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:57PM (#28760003)

    Negroponte sounds like he was the kind of kid that even the geeks stuffed into lockers.

    And what a shame, cuz he's always seemed like such a pleasant, down-to-earth, inclusive fellow...

  • by eln (21727) on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:58PM (#28760027) Homepage
    First, advertising it at first as a $100 laptop was a mistake...it's stupid to announce a price before you figure out what your cost structure is going to look like.

    Second, and more importantly, the distribution plan was flawed. Their big idea was to sell this thing to the governments of third world countries, despite the fact that most third world countries are led by corrupt governments that have little money, and use what money they do have to grease the palms of the inner circle of the government. Most charitable organizations learned decades ago that trying to get corrupt governments interested in doing something for the interest of their poorest citizens is a recipe for failure.

    What they should have done is sold these things to charities that already work in these areas and have knowledge of the difficulties involved and would know where the greatest need is. They should have been dumping these things on charities as fast as they could take them, but instead they were busy trying to get these governments to distribute them, thereby assuring they were only going to be going to countries with relatively stable governments with experience delivering large-scale deployments of things like electrical power to their residents. This means the people that would get them were the ones least likely to benefit.

    Third, they didn't do enough to get the American public interested in the project...sure, there were a bunch of stories in tech rags about how cool this was going to be and how no one could get them unless they were a poor person in a third world country, but that was it. This meant the people most likely to have the spare cash to donate to this cause didn't know enough about it, and never had a chance to get their hands on one except through the short-lived "buy one, get one" program.

    The Internet is fast becoming what electrical power was 50 years ago: It separates the people who are able to participate in the global economy from those who can't. The so-called "digital divide" has been largely closed in this country, but it remains a huge problem globally. The OLPC program is and has been a great idea with a piss-poor implementation plan.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by vlm (69642)

      Their big idea was to sell this thing to the governments of third world countries, despite the fact that most third world countries are led by corrupt governments that have little money, and use what money they do have to grease the palms of the inner circle of the government.

      And that differentiates 3rd world governments from Detroit, DC, New Orleans, Chicago, NYC, the entire state of CA, how exactly? So that is not much of an explanation.

      Most charitable organizations learned decades ago that trying to get corrupt governments interested in doing something for the interest of their poorest citizens is a recipe for failure.

      Tada, there is the problem. Most ethnic minorities are poor because their government likes it that way... Some foreigner trying to make life better for a hated minority group, is never going to accomplish anything, ever.

      • Some foreigner trying to make life better for a hated minority group, is never going to accomplish anything, ever.

        Just ask Oskar Schindler [wikipedia.org].

    • To make a really bad car analogy, bad marketing didn't kill GM, in fact marketing kept GM on life support for decades *in spite of* their crappy cars.

      The XO as delivered during the first G1G1 (and to country projects during that period) was nearly unusable. Hardware functionality was great, but the software didn't measure up at all, in several respects. Software was still experimenting in blue sky when they needed to be delivering on goals.

      First, it didn't perform acceptably within the severely limited RA

  • mistakes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Digi-John (692918) on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:58PM (#28760031) Journal
    When your customized system takes 2-3 times as long to boot as Windows on the same hardware, you probably have made a mistake. Maybe next time don't write it all in python.
  • No, (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Darkness404 (1287218) on Monday July 20, 2009 @02:59PM (#28760041)
    No, the biggest mistake that the OLPC mas that they didn't make cheap, rugged computers. If they had stuck with it, I would imagine they could end up turning a profit by selling cheap computers to the first world. Instead they decided to go with MS and now rather than having a usable, cheap rugged machine their new vision is using (relatively fragile and currently expensive) multi-touch screens for everything.
  • I have to admit, I was convinced, and continue to be convinced by the logic behind Sugar.

    The key to it all is that kids own their machine, so all the admin stuff (networking, power management, etc.) *needs* to work within a consistent, simple GUI.

    More than just an eBook conduit, the device is supposed to be a collaborative learning aid - allowing kids to create and share over the network, conceivably creating learning communities beyond their own village.

    • by sofar (317980)

      The way the UI presents all the hardware to the user is independent from the implementation. A clean and segmented implementation allows for better maintenance, security, readability and a lot more benefits than a monolithic approach

      I'm not saying sugar is bad, but the *implementation* certainly seems to be not looked into properly. For a system this complex, it should have been split up more.

      • by slim (1652)

        I think we can agree there. I have no insight into how Sugar is architected. Fairly obviously, there are right ways and wrong ways it could have been done.

    • by Zey (592528) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:34PM (#28760533)

      ``The key to it all is that kids own their machine, so all the admin stuff (networking, power management, etc.) *needs* to work within a consistent, simple GUI.``

      That view, and the Sugar UI FWIW, stem from a completely flawed understanding of children. Kids are inherently quick at learning and highly adaptable. Give them a Linux or a Windows UI and they'll thrive, taking that knowledge with them and building on it to adulthood.

      What Sugar did was try to lock them in a world of Fisher Price toy simplicity, as if they were intellectually retarded. None of the UI knowledge of Sugar would benefit them later. It thoroughly deserved to fail.

      • I would take a step further and say making the hardware look like a toy didn't help.
      • by slim (1652)

        That view, and the Sugar UI FWIW, stem from a completely flawed understanding of children. Kids are inherently quick at learning and highly adaptable. Give them a Linux or a Windows UI and they'll thrive, taking that knowledge with them and building on it to adulthood.

        Is that true, or does it only apply to the kids who are going to grow up to be nerds?

        (That's a serious question. I'm entirely open to the possiblity you've got some research to link to.)

        OLPC needs to be useful to the future poets as well as the future engineers.

      • If I remember, Sugar also had the ability to allow them to modify the source code on the fly. So it had Fisher Price simplicity, but it also had power, if they wanted it. And remember, this is all based on the idea that these kids haven't grown up with traditional Windows or Linux UIs, so it's a chance to let them build whatever actually works best for them.

    • The key to it all is that kids own their machine, so all the admin stuff (networking, power management, etc.) *needs* to work within a consistent, simple GUI.

      That said, from the first time I heard of OLPC, through all of its iterations and twisting and turning of the plot, I always assumed that OLPC was bound for failure. Not because I wanted them to fail. As little as I thought about the idea, implementation and execution, I thought that at least their heart was kind of in the right place, if a little misdirected.

      I was never able to figure out just who the eventual product was built for. In a western or otherwise developed nation mindset, a child has belongi

  • I'm not a Negroponte fan, but I partly agree with him. Not that Sugar was a total bust, but that overall utility would have been increased if Sugar had been an application running on a standard Linux distro, rather than a whole desktop environment. There might have been less griping from the G1G1 people who thought they were getting a "laptop" rather than an educational appliance which is what the XO is with Sugar as its desktop environment. Could have been an easier sell to governments as well for satis

    • by Darkness404 (1287218) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:02PM (#28760105)
      Sure, but name a desktop environment that would work that well on the OLPC's pathetic specs. Sugar was designed to be primarily single-tasking leaving enough CPU/memory in order to run those tasks well. The temptation to multitask with a traditional DE would end up ruining performance. You have to remember, this thing is more underpowered than the cheap netbooks that will barely surf the web on anything that has Flash.
      • by fyoder (857358)

        Sugar is written in Python. It wasn't designed to be fast, at it isn't terribly, but rather discoverable and very tweakable.

        I've had the XO running with ubuntu and KDE 3. Ok, perhaps with KDE 'running' isn't such a good term, but with XFCE instead it can function as a little netbook. The biggest drawback for me was actually physical, namely its little keyboard. You can extend its functionality loads with USB devices, including keyboard, but it winds up being an octopus [backofthebook.ca] that takes twenty minutes to set u

        • by slim (1652)

          The biggest drawback for me was actually physical, namely its little keyboard.

          ... which (as I'm sure a G1G1er knows) is a feature not a bug. It's intended to make the laptop less tempting for adult thieves.

      • Sure, but name a desktop environment that would work that well on the OLPC's pathetic specs.

        Why insist on a desktop environment? Why not a simple, barebones window manager like Window Maker, Fluxbox, or FVWM? They could be made quite easy to use with just a decent default configuration tailored to the OLPC.

    • The term Desktop Environment does not mean what you think it does. In the case of Sugar, it was not a DE but an OS (operating system). If they had gone with it as a DE like Gnome and KDE, running on either a stripped down Linux or BSD kernel, I feel that they might have gotten the cost down to that mythical $100.00 dollars.

      Several Others have made the valid point that Sugar is an excellent educational environment and if the OLPC had pushed the damn thing world wide as an educational device with the ability

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:12PM (#28760243) Homepage

    The big mistake OLPC made was Nicholas Negroponte. He's too much into his own self-importance. His thing was dealing at the national leader level and getting himself into the press. What was needed was somebody who knew how to get a low-cost product out the door and sell it in quantity.

    The OLPC should have been in a bubble-pack in every Wal-Mart and Walgreens in America, in every souk in the Middle East, and in every market in India, selling at a small profit and dropping in price every three months. But no, Negroponte had to try to make big deals with governments. That might have happened after they actually had the product out there in volume.

    • The OLPC should have been in a bubble-pack in every Wal-Mart and Walgreens in America, in every souk in the Middle East, and in every market in India, selling at a small profit and dropping in price every three months

      Surprised you knew souk but not bazaar

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      1. Regarding Walmart, etc., you're absolutely right. It wasn't Sugar's fault, or the windup crank's fault, it was the fact I could not easily purchase them for my kids. I could not purchase them at all in fact until Negroponte made them unnecessarily expensive.

      2. Regarding national leaders, you may be onto something. His brother after all is renowned diplomat and friend of dictators John Negroponte.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bearhouse (1034238)

      Exactly. If they'd just given all the money they've wasted to a bunch of Chinese backstreet hackers, this thing would be all over the place now.. Probably would also run "XP" just fine too...

  • Sugar has had it share of issues, to be sure, but this notion that OLPC should be a hardware company is quite absurd. Thanks but no thanks -- hardware is a commodity that you can get from anywhere. It is the creation of innovative software, specifically tailored to children, that makes the device interesting or not.
  • by dpbsmith (263124) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:31PM (#28760497) Homepage

    The meta-idea of rethinking UI from the ground up, and building something specifically directed at kids, was a wonderful idea. Frankly, the reason I bought a G1G1 machine was that I hoped to experience a fresh and wonderful user interface.

    I think Sugar was a sad failure. I don't quite know what to make of the obvious riposte that I don't belong to the target audience. But an awful lot of the official Sugar documentation seemed to me to make too much use of "proof by repeated assertion." A file system organized primarily by recency (the Journal) instead of space (the Apple pre-OS-X Finder) or nested hierarchy (pre-GUI)? Wow, what a strange idea. What a fresh idea. I couldn't imagine how it could work, but all these people said it did, so after giving up on imagining it I paid $400 to experience it. Well, it sure didn't work for me.

    And the claim that it works for kids because they "naturally describe what they are doing"--sorry, I just don't believe nine-year-old kids are going to type text tags and descriptions into every Journal entry so that they can find them again. Subject to correction by anyone who's actually watched real nine-year-olds playing with an XO and seen them tag and describe Journal entries, but the last several times I asked this online nobody said they had.

    UI design seems to me to have peaked sometime in the early 1980s, when computer companies still needed to seduce laypersons who weren't already trained on computer usage. As "computer literacy" became more and more of a career necessity, computer companies were able to get away with more and more complexity. For me, an important downward turning point occurred when Microsoft violated Apple's UI guidelines, which stated that documents should always re-open with the insertion point positioned where it was when the document was closed--a special instance of the principle that things should stay where you put them. Microsoft couldn't be bothered; with Word, like Sisyphus, you always start with your insertion point once again having rolled down to the bottom of the hill. Other companies, eventually including Apple, followed suit, and this minor but significant point of UI design was lost, along with many others.

    A fresh look at UI design is desperately needed. UI design is now in the hands of power-user snobs who revel in their ability to handle complexity. Ordinary people resign themselves to forever feeling that "I'm just a dummy when it comes to computers." The world desperately needs a user interface so simple a child could use it. A pity that Sugar isn't it.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Bearhouse (1034238)

      You are so right. I'm still trying to see the benefits of the latest Office 'ribbon' interface...
      Trivia fans: Shift and F5 in Word will still take you back to the last point where you edited the document, (not where your cursor position was...unless you changed something there...)

  • every time some new way to apply linux to comes to fruition i find that the biggest part of it is just a reinvention of what is already available, its a waste of resources!
  • ...followed quickly by the hardware at #2.

    Seriously, they missed the boat on faster chips by about a generation, chips that would have been 'good enough' to do web browsing and video playback at a low power draw. The Geode (right?) in the XO is just too slow.

  • by careysub (976506) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:56PM (#28760859)

    I am in an excellent position to evaluate this issue, having purchased one of the first XO OLPCs through the give-one-get-one (GOGO) program for an 11 year old child, and then obtained an Asus Eee PC netbook running Xandros Linux (a window-ized interface to Debian Linux, along the lines of Ubuntu).

    The 11-year old's verdict: thumbs down for Sugar, thumbs-up for Xandros. She gave up with fiddling on the XO after a few weeks, but loves to use the Eee PC. As the network support resource for my household, I can further point out that Sugar shipped with unusable wireless security (WEP only), which some months later was upgraded to WPA, but with this fatal flaw: every time the computer is powered up the user has to reenter the entire passphrase to get wireless access. Since a rather lengthy and obscure passphrase had been previously selected to provide household network security, this was an intolerable nuisance to an 11-year old. And dumbing-down the household security for the convenience of one cheap product is unacceptable to this network support resource.

    Perhaps the passphrase remembering problem has since been fixed (since the XO is not used by its target audience any more I am not inclined to upgrade the OS to test it) but it illustrates the fatal problem with the Sugar approach: writing a decent OS is hard work, and taking a quick and dirty stab at it gives a foundation of sand for the whole offering. Absolutely they should have run a solid robust proven OS (Linux) for the system, adding on what ever they felt was needed.,/p>

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Charbax (678404)

      Eeepc consumes 10x more power and costs upwards 2x as much. Not sunlight readable, not sand/water proof, not shock proof, not mesh networkable so many other things that are absolutely required in those places the 1.2 Million OLPC laptops have so far been delivered.

      • by careysub (976506)

        Eeepc consumes 10x more power and costs upwards 2x as much. Not sunlight readable, not sand/water proof, not shock proof, not mesh networkable so many other things that are absolutely required in those places the 1.2 Million OLPC laptops have so far been delivered.

        The only possibly valid point in the above critical response, is the issue of power (if it is reinterpreted to refer only to processor power). Could a virtually identical XO run a stripped down version of Linux instead of a pure-Sugar solution? (Homer's voice: mmmm... pure sugar solution).

        I think the answer is probably yes. The Atom processor in the Eee PC is four times faster than the Geode in the XO, but the Atom is also enormous overkill for the XO application. I know for a fact that Linux is quite usabl

    • by Ant P. (974313)

      WEP? Okay, I can understand that on a DS which is severely underpowered and can't afford the power consumption of doing heavy encryption in software. The OLPC is anything but underpowered here - the Geode has hardware AES, so it gets WPA practically for free. These people are idiots.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by slim (1652)

      On top of Charbax's very valid points, there's the matter of your 11 year old already (presumably) being an English speaking WIMP user.

      What's important is how Sugar is adopted by a child who has never used a computer of any kind before, and especially one who doesn't speak any language in common with the implementors. (I don't know how successful this would be / has been - but it is the key measurement)

  • Reading this quote made me think:

    "But what we did...was we had Sugar do the power management, we had Sugar do the wireless management--it became sort of an omelet. The Bios talked directly with Sugar, so Sugar became a bit of a mess."

    I always thought that sugar was the graphics interface(Window manager, desktop and widgets, something like kde or gnome, but lighter).

    So is he confused about what sugar is, or is sugar really a kind of mini os, operating on a linux kernel? Why should sugar for example include a wireless driver as part of sugar, instead of including the wireless driver as a standard linux driver, and then letting sugar communicate with it, as it would with any other driver.

  • by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Monday July 20, 2009 @04:13PM (#28761123) Homepage

    Before we all jump on the OLPC/Sugar hater bandwagon, let's read the actual quote:

    "Sugar should have been an application [residing] on a normal operating system," he told ZDNet Asia in an interview. "But what we did... was we had Sugar do the power management, we had Sugar do the wireless management--it became sort of an omelet. The Bios talked directly with Sugar, so Sugar became a bit of a mess."
    Negroponte added: "It should have been much cleaner, like the way they offer [it] on a stick now."

    So it sounds like the problem, as Negroponte see it, was the Sugar was written as a pseudo OS/large chunk of user space when it should be acted more like a kiosk application on top of more traditional software to run things like power management.

    Sugar it's self, as an interface, still seems like a good idea to me. It's a good idea to give people a simplified user interface for basic tasks. Why should kids in Nigeria or Malaysia have to learn a "traditional" interface? Remember our "traditional" interface exists because of historical storage limits (which for OLPC don't matter, you don't need everything on a 50kb disk, you have hundreds of megabytes free) and user training (they were familiar with CP/M, DOS should do files the same way. They were familiar with DOS, Windows should do files the same way...).

    It's very hard for us to switch off of 20-30 years of average people being used to files onto something more like a journal or database, but something like the OLPC was the perfect chance to get computer users who weren't saddled with all that (at least initially).

    Sugar: Good idea, implemented in a way which broke the layers of abstractions it should have been built on.

  • I was at a trade show and saw the OLPC a couple years ago.

    In theory you could pick one up and play with it.
    In practice, all were broken in one way or another -- missing keys, broken mice, frozen software, broken wifi antennas, dead screens...

    If you can't even get your stupid device to work at a *trade show*, then you've got problems. Why would I buy something that clearly doesn't work?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by 0x4a6f6e43 (837256)
      Missing keys? WTF. People with pocket knives cut them out or something? It's a frigging rubber mat keyboard. How does it loose a key? What kind of trade show was this? A razor blade trade show?
  • I can't believe this doofus is trying to lay the blame on the OS. I had a fully functional X server running Linux in the early 90's on a 486/33. How they could screw up the coding so bad as to drag a 400MHz processor to its knees is just amazing. The flavor of Linux involved is irrelevant. There was so much layering of interpreters and scripts that the house of cards couldn't help but be dog slow. If the smalltalk junk hadn't been somebody's pet project before OLPC the system might have had a chance of work

  • by SoupIsGood Food (1179) on Monday July 20, 2009 @04:30PM (#28761421)

    I am responsible for a half-dozen different "appliance" server platforms. They all have Linux at the core, but a specialized CLI and GUI (usually web-based) layered on top for administration and maintenance of the box itself, and configuration and monitoring of the application it runs. They are by no stretch of the imagination Unix servers, despite a *nix-like core underneath, where the user can't get at it easily (or at all).

    This is standard industry practice in the year 2009, and not a "mistake."

    The mistake made wasn't committing to Sugar first, the hardware second - the rush to cram Windows on their boxes was stupid and self-defeating. The OLPC was best categorized as a personal computing appliance rather than a general purpose workstation, and Sugar was and is fantastic for this purpose. By committing to the learning-appliance concept, they could tweak Sugar to run on whatever hardware offered the most bang for its buck. Processors come and go, storage drives obsolete themselves like clockwork... it doesn't matter. The processor isn't the purpose, the RAM is not the point. The point is that the kids have a computer that's easy to learn, rewarding to master, simple to maintain and reliable under all circumstances... and that starts with the interface.

    Besides, Apple doesn't have a problem running its interfacer overtop *nix.

  • Angstrom or something similar would have done.

    It can be easier to design the hardware to suit the software sometimes. Use chips which have good drivers.

    I'm sure OLPC inspired these small cheap netbooks that seem to be flooding the market now.

  • It was Sugar... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TrailerTrash (91309) * on Monday July 20, 2009 @05:39PM (#28762451)

    Standard disclaimer, I've used a zillion operating environments, like most /.'ers, with my favorites being VMS and Ubuntu's flavor of GNOME (In MY DAY, we used punch cards, and we had to punch the holes out with a hand-bone of a squirrel we had to catch and skin ourselves. Now get off my lawn!). I also bought a GOGO Sugar machine. My kids hated it, I hated it. The wireless would lose all connectivity after each 24 hours (yes, my DHCP lease was infinite), after taking days of fiddling just to get it to talk to the secure wireless modem. I eventually gave up and got a USB wired ethernet connection. It still would hang randomly, though less often. And the only thing the machine ever did was FireFox. The "documentation" was more missing than real. I chalked all that up to the program being more focused on getting the machines to Peru and Mongolia. But it didn't make the system any less painful to use.

    It now sits on the floor in my office, in a dusty heap. If I ever get the motivation I'll put a flavor of real Linux on it, but that's pretty unlikely.

    If it had come out with a semi-standard Linux interface I think it would have stood a better chance of success, if only to me. How long did it take to develop the environment and apps when the resources could just as well have been devoted to making a lean and mean distro to fit the hardware? Poor resource planning, it seems.

  • by v(*_*)vvvv (233078) on Monday July 20, 2009 @11:01PM (#28765355)

    It's a shame for everyone who read deeper into this, because the whole pretext of this story is based on an over approximation.

    Negroponte said this:

    [T]he biggest mistake was not having Sugar run as an application

    He in no shape or form said Sugar was a mistake! He is talking about the implementation, you fools! It is like saying the automobile was a mistake, when the inventor just said he should have used a cleaner engine.

    The person disagreeing [olpcnews.com] with the words they put in Negroponte's mouth says:

    Sugar was not a mistake, it is one of the defining aspects of the XO laptop, and saved it from even more unfavorable comparisons to traditional laptops and accusations of being underpowered.

    Right. So in what way are you disagreeing with the claim that Sugar should have been more modular, the system architecture should have been simpler, and that Sugar could have been more interpolatable with other systems?

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