Revenge is (Sugar) Sweet


I'm sure that one day the whole One Laptop Per Child saga will make a fascinating case-study for business schools. After years as a flagship of bold and original thinking at every level that involved innovative hardware and software, it has finally come to this:

Microsoft and the laptop organization announced Thursday that the nonprofit's green-and-white 'XO' computers now can run Windows in addition to their homegrown interface, which is built on the open Linux operating system.

And so the XO becomes just another portable that runs Windows XP. That, on its own, would probably be a condign punishment for Negroponte, given his waspish rejoinder in the early years of the project - “When you have both Intel and Microsoft on your case, you know you're doing something right'. But I find some of the commentary around this latest development troubling. Here, for example:

The dual boot option will accommodate less-developed countries with needs for open source software and other OLPC functionality, and the need for business critical applications, like Office, supplied by Microsoft. This won’t mean that more adults will use XO; it will mean that children will have a longer run with XO and it won’t be relegated to lower school laptop use exclusively.

The clear implication is that open source apps like just don't cut the mustard, and that somehow “serious” users need “serious” software from Microsoft. That's absurd. Office is not a “business critical application”, it's simply the de facto standard that most businesses use. Network effects mean that new users – and schools – tend to gravitate to it, and so perpetuate its dominance.

But this kind of herd mentality does a great disservice to children learning about computers; it inculcates the idea that Office and Windows are pretty much synonymous with software, instead of just examples (and, some would argue, not very good ones.). What schools should be teaching are the general principles of what word processing and spreadsheets are, not where the Save function is on the Word and Excel menus.

Indeed, in an ideal word, schools would be teaching their charges how to think with software, not just use it as another aspect of the curriculum that has to be learned by rote and tested in exams. Ironically, that was precisely what the original OLPC project was trying to do before this final sell-out.

Happily, all is not lost. OLPC may have served its purpose as a spark for greater intellectual conflagrations. For example, the mind behind the advanced, ultra low-power screen technology, Mary Lou Jepsen, interviewed by Open Enterprise a couple of months back, has set up her own company, Pixel Qi, to make those innovative technologies more widely available.

And now we learn that some of the key people behind the innovative Sugar software that originally lay at the heart of the OLPC have created their own standalone project, Sugar Labs, which offers the following mini-manifesto:

Information is about nouns; learning is about verbs. The Sugar interface, in its departure from the desktop metaphor for computing, is the first serious attempt to create a user interface that is based on both cognitive and social constructivism: learners should engage in authentic exploration and collaboration. It is based on three very simple principles about what makes us human: (1) everyone is a teacher and a learner; (2) humans by their nature are social beings; and (3) humans by their nature are expressive. These are the pillars of a user experience for learning.

Sugar also considers two aphorisms: (1) you learn through doing, so if you want more learning you want more doing; and (2) love is a better master than duty—you want people to engage in things that are authentic to them, things that they love.

The presence of other people is always present in the Sugar interface: collaboration is a first-order experience. Students and teachers engage in a dialog with each other, support each other, critique each other, and share ideas.

Sugar is also discoverable: it can accommodate a wide variety of users, with different levels of skill in terms of reading, language, and different levels of experience with computing. It is easy to approach and yet it doesn't put an upper bound on personal expression; one can peel away layers and go deeper and deeper, with no restrictions.

Clearly, much of this maps directly on to the open source development methodology, and is completely antithetical to the idea of brainwashing children educationally into believing that there is One True Way of handling text, and that is Word, and One True Way of crunching numbers, in Excel.

Let's hope Sugar Labs succeeds – for the sake of the children, for the sake of the open source commons, and for the sake of sweet revenge on a terrible betrayal of a powerful idea.