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Negroponte Sees Sugar As OLPC's Biggest Mistake 268

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 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.

  • 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.
  • 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 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 ) * <`gro.uaeb' `ta' `sirromj'> 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 mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:20PM (#28760365) Journal

    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, no matter how poor, wants to feel second-rate.

  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) * on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:29PM (#28760459) 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 samkass ( 174571 ) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:30PM (#28760483) Homepage Journal

    Can you actually cite some numbers here? How much money is being made in the FOSS world vs. in the MS Windows third-party software world? If my livelihood depended on it as an indie developer, I'd probably not pick either, but rather target the iPhone or some other niche where I could get better distribution and where advertising dollars might go further.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:45PM (#28760665) Homepage

    I've been an OLPC skeptic from the beginning: it is a poor value option for the markets to which it is being directed (where the money could be spent more effectively just by paying for teachers), there are better options for less money (see the PlayPower project) and it is really about a very old model of aid, in which rich countries treat poor countries as little siblings receiving hand-me-downs rather than understanding their distinctive social dynamics. The PlayPower project also gives more opportunities to local economies to actually produce the hardware and software involved, something else relatively ignored by OLPC.

    OLPC was crippled by hubris from its inception. I wouldn't blame its problems on Sugar.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 20, 2009 @03:48PM (#28760733)

    you've given her technology for a lifetime.

    What is this goofy FOSS Zealot thing of using the female pronoun in examples of computer use? I'm seeing this everywhere these days.

  • by MBCook ( 132727 ) <> 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.

  • by Charbax ( 678404 ) on Monday July 20, 2009 @04:14PM (#28761143) Homepage

    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 slim ( 1652 ) <> on Monday July 20, 2009 @04:31PM (#28761437) Homepage

    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)

  • by Chabil Ha' ( 875116 ) on Monday July 20, 2009 @04:33PM (#28761467)

    But I would have purchased one expressly because it did look like a Fisher Price product. It was totally worthy of toying around and even letting my children use.

  • by Locutus ( 9039 ) on Monday July 20, 2009 @05:32PM (#28762359)

    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 fulfillment of the original MOUs OLPC collected as they finalized the design and went into production. Remember, Microsoft got into running Windows on the XO well after it was already in production. They did get them to add the SD card reader before XO-1 went into production though but I never saw or heard of Windows running on it before production. Even after production and "official announcement" of the XO running Windows, it took over a year before we really saw anything even close to production ready. And remember, Microsoft has the source code to Windows XP and MS employees were supposedly working on it. Remember, they really drag their feet doing things they really don't care to do.



  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 20, 2009 @05:52PM (#28762615)

    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.

    Exactly, and he could have used the profit to give away the OLPC's to the poorer countries.

I was playing poker the other night... with Tarot cards. I got a full house and 4 people died. -- Steven Wright