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OLPC Chief: Our OS Was Our Biggest Mistake

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 19 comments

It's been a while since we've heard anything from Nicholas Negroponte but the OLPC chief recently aired his grievances about the OLPC project and it seems that he is not at all pleased with the Sugar UI that runs on all XO laptops.

In a recent interview with ZDNet Asia, Negroponte was asked about the mistakes made with the XO laptop and OLPC. Negroponte noted that putting the crank handle on the machine was a mistake, however he said the biggest mistake was using Sugar as the operating system.

Negroponte explained that the company should have offered Sugar as an application running on a regular OS. 

"Sugar should have been an application [residing] on a normal operating system," he told ZDNet Asia. "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 went on to say that the move by Sugar Labs to offer Sugar on a USB stick was "much cleaner" and added that with this development, we could see a "naked" XO laptop sometime in the future.

What do you think OLPC's biggest failure has been to date? Let us know in the comments below!

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  • 14 Hide
    squatchman , July 21, 2009 10:01 PM
    I'm going to go with the obvious, "They refused to sell it" reason.

    Remember that the OLPC predates the Atom and nearly predates the netbook fad itself.
Other Comments
  • -3 Hide
    ricardok , July 21, 2009 9:16 PM
    The OLPC is a failure by itself.
    Go for ATOM, and add some nice ports to it.
    And the handle, yuck.

    Kids love new stuff, but not "that" stuff..
  • 5 Hide
    christop , July 21, 2009 9:41 PM
    Well It was a good Idea... But I tried sugar and hated it.. That was a mistake they should have went with ubuntu or something maybe windows based
  • 14 Hide
    squatchman , July 21, 2009 10:01 PM
    I'm going to go with the obvious, "They refused to sell it" reason.

    Remember that the OLPC predates the Atom and nearly predates the netbook fad itself.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , July 21, 2009 11:16 PM
    Jane,

    Thanks for picking up on the OLPC News article where we debate OLPC biggest mistake: http://www.olpcnews.com/people/negroponte/olpc_biggest_mistake_sugar.html
  • 1 Hide
    mdillenbeck , July 21, 2009 11:27 PM
    Should have sold it under on the open market at the price that would have subsidized one donated laptop per laptop sold. Also, yet, they should have use an open-source linux platform and made sugar a custom interface - I think it would have made them seem more humanitarian in nature. I like the Ubuntu suggestion, as the two groups seem to share the same philosophical foundation.

    Of course, another reason it may have "failed" could be the global economic downturn and the inability to include key features for the desired implementation. (For example, having hand cranked power so those people in remote areas could use it without an expensive solar charging station!)
  • -7 Hide
    Anonymous , July 22, 2009 12:13 AM
    The sad thing here is that Steve Jobs offered OLPC a free version of OS X for OLPC way before they got started and they said OS X was not "open enough" in spite of the fact that the core OS is open source, and BSD, Java, Apache2, PHP5, Ruby, Python, HTML 5, OpenGL and much more is all built-in. And in spite of the fact that OS X can run a compositing OpenGL interface even on 2001 hardware.

    What it comes down to is that OLPC had to have the word "Linux" in their system and and now OLPC is just another failed consumer Linux. The irony is that Linux is so famously open source, but everybody who uses it starts totally from scratch and builds up to X-Windows and then quits. X-Windows is literally 1980's technology.



  • 3 Hide
    belardo , July 22, 2009 12:25 AM
    The OLPC was designed for 3rd world operations. A generic cheap notebook would die out in the elements and power is an issue.

    The handcrank is an expenses and function needed out in the boonies... so it does work. But I think most people living out in forests/etc where there is NO power, TV, etc - could care less about computers.

    The OS really shouldn't have made a difference since A modern computer such as the OLPC is far more powerful than 16bit computers of the 80s. Compatibility with MS shouldn't have been a factor, its a beginners computer. Designed to work in any language that any child can figure out how to use.

    Now, Sugar shouldn't have been the OS. A stripped-down linux or if MS wanted to DONATE an embedded version of windows would have been better (if possible - do we know?) with Sugar as the GUI.

    The OLPCs are a 3+ year old design now. The OLPC-2 is better and modern design that's even better and even COOL by any standards. There is almost no ports or any moving parts. It opens up, that's it. No keyboard, "ears", etc. Its 2 LCD screens... Opened like a notebook, one screen becomes the keyboard. (No dirt or water damage) Hold it like a book and the mode its in, and it works like a book. Open it flat, its a tablet computer.

    But what caused the OLPC to fail?
    - Intel : They wanted their CPU and made their OWN vesion of a mini-computer that they would NEVER make. Then hit the 3rd world countries and competed against the OLPC with the Classmate PC.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , July 22, 2009 1:19 AM
    By all means the colors and design!
    Though it's made for the African continent where they love colors, in western countries it would not sell very well.

    Apart from that I think the OLPC in it's time was a piece of ingenuity!
    The first laptop I know that uses AA type of batteries, has a semi reflective LCD display, with increased resolution by using diagonal aligned pixels, it was dust proof, rugged, and had a CPU powerful enough to do most chores.
    Also the sugar OS could be converted to a debian like screen with a launch bar,and a desktop with desktop icons.
    An improved os for meshing is also something we hardly ever see in our western society where everyone is expected to have their own internet access point.

    I don't think the OLPC was a failure at all, and for many hardware hackers and gadget freaks a tool cheap enough to open up, and mod it (eg: adding a bluetooth stick, increase flash space or other things).

    I think it would have been good for the laptop to have a SD card as drive; it is cheap enough, and the upgrade will give a significant boost in diskspace(compared to the factory disk space)!
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , July 22, 2009 1:23 AM
    Another thing:
    Biggest failure is the "buy one give one" requirement.
    I'm sure a lot more people would have bought it, if they only didn't need to buy 2 of them (which costed back then almost $400!).
  • 0 Hide
    lifelesspoet , July 22, 2009 2:35 AM
    This has been the lesson learned by most netbook makers. Intuitive designed, large icon space saving desktops are great for 2.5 inch cell screens. A large portion of netbook users installed generic linux desktops or windows on their linux netbook. The msi wind shipped with poor drivers and lenovo bosses blamed the linux community for not doing a better Job making drivers.
    A squandered opportunity for linux. Also note, one of the best selling linux netbooks, the dell mini, comes with a very usable version of ubuntu.
  • 4 Hide
    Aoster87 , July 22, 2009 2:48 AM
    Hm, reminds me of System of a Down - Sugar!
  • 2 Hide
    babolucci , July 22, 2009 7:25 AM
    Despite what others may think, the OLPC was an incredible machine! It still is even by today's standards, verified by the near $200 (original price from nearly two years ago) they're still fetching on e-bay. What manufacturer today includes a wifi chip that supports mesh networking? The ideas were great, the implementation was done quite well especially considering the resources available, and a lot of people in the industry wanted them for themselves at the time. I still remember the first time I saw one and the "wow" factor that ensued. I really don't believe that the failure had anything to do with the OS, as children really could give a rats' hind-end about MS and the OS war. Sugar was simple, intuitive, and functioned just fine with every application any given child might need. As previously mentioned, the failure had to do with the whining amongst hardware and even software manufacturers that were worried about it pushing down profit margins on relatively decent hardware that they were 'currently' making money off of. The biggest whiner of course, as mentioned by the previous commenter, being Intel, who "took their CPU and went home" after losing the contract to AMD (whom simply had a more economic implementation available and every penny counted with the OLPC). Their (Intel) solution being to quite publicly denounce the OLPC with "we're going to build our own!," sent the main sources of funding and support for the project scampering, and to nobody's surprise the Classmate PC was soon pushed to the wayside having already served its purpose. Based on the immense public intrigue of the device, and the sudden hole created by the disappearance of it (I know I had planned to buy one), Asus took a chance and successfully capitalized on the newly empty market with the Eee. Having been prepared for such circumstances, most-likely attributed to the R&D already committed to the Classmate PC, Intel simply continued development on their existing chip ideas and quickly brought out the Atom for the now highly popular netbook market segment. I'm still not sure why everyone continued to come down on Negroponte after all was said and done. He really seemed to be the quiet hero behind the netbook craze of today, having successfully pushed a very advanced device to full production with technology (e-ink, mesh, hand-crank, ruggedized, etc.) far exceeding what most netbooks today even include for less than half the price ($200!).
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , July 22, 2009 9:08 AM
    The biggest mistake was the deployment strategy. They should have got their channel working end to end and then expanded sideways and improved the product. What if Microsoft had refused to sell any products in 1985 because Windows 2000 wasn't ready yet?
  • 0 Hide
    annymmo , July 22, 2009 10:43 AM
    They should have went with a Linux distribution like Ubuntu without changing it. And only change the drivers.
    Or contribute to the Linux kernel and desktop projects and other software projects instead of making an extra project.

    (Then they wouldn't have any worries with OS once they got it run smoothly.)

    If they would have used Ubuntu, they could have saved time, money and effort. While having a familiar OS. Ubuntu's resources could work for them and they wouldn't have to worry about it.
  • 1 Hide
    Pei-chen , July 22, 2009 11:31 AM
    They were too greedy and want companies to foot their independent hardware design bills instead of buying off the shelf components. $160~$200 is way too expensive when a fully functional netbook with Windows can be had for just a bit more and totally outclass the OLPC in terms of spec. I recall MS is selling XP educational license at $4 a pop in developing countries.
  • 0 Hide
    megamanx00 , July 22, 2009 5:31 PM
    Biggest failure? MANAGEMENT!!!

    The whole buy one, get one campaign was probably what killed this device in my mind. Rather than selling people a unit when they were interested, no lets double the price and let them buy one for some poor kid. If they had just sold it at 250 or 300, with part of the proceeds going to provide OLPC to poor kids, then they could have built mind share, increased volume, and lowered their production costs.

    Of course that didn't happen. Instead you got to pay $400 for the thing right around the time netbooks started coming around. They may have gotten away with $400 for the buy one get one IF they had released it earlier when interest was at a high, but too many delays caused by management.

    Management FAIL!
  • 0 Hide
    caskachan , July 22, 2009 6:55 PM
    im sorry but i didnt notunderstand half of what you posted, sugar, handle? are you cooking?
  • 0 Hide
    hilesr , July 22, 2009 7:17 PM
    Biggest mistake was probably not seeing how the software and hardware industry would view OLPC as a threat and act accordingly. They also didn't see the recession coming-- a lot of financial support dried up.

    But it's not all bad news-- the slower rollouts have allowed more time for developing local support infrastructures in the schools.

    BTW, what Negroponte is calling for (making a regular Linux desktop available along with Sugar) is coming with the XO-1.5 later this year.

    Hardware info: http://www.olpcnews.com/laptops/xo15/xo_laptop_gen_15_with_via_c7-m.html

    Software info: http://blog.printf.net/articles/2009/05/16/the-olpc-xo-1-5-and-fedora-11

    Perhaps this article should have had a little more background information-- Sugar IS a custom interface based on Fedora Linux. The hand crank was on an early prototype that never was produced.

  • 0 Hide
    jacobdrj , July 22, 2009 7:59 PM
    This is how OLPC should have worked:

    1) Start selling OLPCs to 1st world nations AT COST. Just get the production moving on them.

    2) As the price reduces, keep selling those OLPC's at the original price, say $200.

    3) Use the increasing profit margins to fund the purchase of these laptops for individuals in 3rd world countries.

    I remember wanting an OLPC because of it's feature set. I knew of (what became known as) the netbook market back in 2004. OLPC is generaly better than 1st generation netbook offerings. But because Negroponte did that stupid (buy 2 get 1) thing, nobody bit. He could have improved the design later. He could have taken increasing profit margins to reinvest. Even not-for-profit organizations can utilize this model. But he wanted too much too fast, and didn't take into consideration the impact of NOT having the traditional US/EU market having these things readily available.