January 22, 2008

OLPC looks ahead with optimism

Author: Lisa Hoover

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has been in the news a lot in recent months. Reports last fall that Uruguay purchased 100,000 XO laptops and soon US consumers could do the same via a special campaign soon gave way to news items about a patent lawsuit and Intel's abrupt departure from OLPC's board. Walter Bender, OLPC's president of software/content and COO, says those developments are nothing more than a bump in the road.

As OLPC announced Uruguay's planned purchase of XO laptops, people in the open source community continued to hope for a chance to buy a unit as well. OLPC responded with the Give One Get One campaign, which let people purchase an XO for themselves and one for a child in a developing country. Although limited to US and Canadian customers, the program was such a success it was extended a month beyond its original deadline and ended December 31. Bender says the campaign raised a whopping $35 million dollars.

He reports that "more than 100,000 XO laptops are already in the process of being distributed to children in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Mongolia, and Rwanda. This generous response was overwhelming, and significantly helps us move forward our mission of getting laptops into the hands of as many underprivileged children as possible."

Despite the success of the Give One Get One campaign, there are no plans in the works to offer it a second time, nor to make the units available to consumers outside the US and Canada.

According to Bender, the program succeeeded in putting XO laptops in the hands of the open source community, which has given the OLPC project extra traction in recent weeks. "In addition to making it possible to seed the launch of programs in a number of countries, the Give One Get One campaign greatly expanded community participation in the project. The community has already jumped in to help; the level of activity in OLPC forums, chat rooms, email lists and wiki entries has risen dramatically.

"Give One Get One participants have asked lots of questions -- and have uncovered some new bugs -- but they also have lots of answers and have submitted some new software patches. The community model is scaling."

That's good news for a project that had its fair share of challenges lately. In November, a Nigerean company (owned by a man convicted of bank fraud) filed a patent infringement lawsuit against OLPC. He is seeking $20 million in damages and an injunction designed to keep OLPC from distributing XO laptops in Nigeria. Experts watching the case have called the lawsuit "hopeless." Bender says simply, "There is no case," and points to the existence of prior art in the public domain.

The beginning of 2008 delivered a one-two punch as OLPC's founding CTO Mary Lou Jepsen announced she was leaving to start her own for-profit company using some of the technologies she developed for XO laptops. Scarcely a week later, news broke that Intel was ending its love / hate relationship with the project and withdrawing from the OLPC board. Then close on the heels of Intel's exit came a report that OLPC was working with Microsoft to develop a dual-boot XO laptop, however Microsoft swiftly denied the claim.

What impact will Intel's departure have on the project? "None," says Bender. He asserts that Intel "came late to the party" and joined a board full of partners already making progress in furthering the goals of the project. "It is unfortunate that Intel was not able to contribute to our mission," he says. "Intel is trying to brand OLPC as anti-competition [and] create a false dilemma by suggesting that the essence of OLPC's anti-competitiveness is its objection to the introduction of competitive products. In fact, OLPC's objection is to anti-competitive practices, not products. To object to unfair competitive practices is hardly a stance against competition."

For those involved in the project, none of the recent events have dampened the enthusiasm. In fact, Bender the team is thrilled that the children in Peru and Uruguay now have XO laptops and are learning how to use them. He says the project's pilot programs are thriving and the number of developers and volunteers continues to grow.

What's next on OLPC's horizon? "There is a long ways to go in terms of incremental improvements to the software platform, but the next big thing is to step up the level of energy around supporting learning in the field -- building a learning community that is analogous to the free and open source software community.

"We have set an ambitious goal and we need [the open source community's] participation. We are collectively responsible for bringing opportunity for learning to the world's children; learning is a fundamental part of the solution to the many problems we face."


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