What does it take to be "part" of the OLPC project? (On predatory perceptions and porting...)

Had a very interesting conversation this morning with a volunteer out in the field (which is to say, in a developing nation) about the opinion being observed that Intel's Classmate is just as much a part of the OLPC project as the XO. There's a perception among those observers that the joining of the board[1] was simply to be able to say "see, we're part of that project, if you buy from us then you're part of that". There is a related (rather strong) perception that Intel is pulling a predatory move where they'll attempt to kill off the XO hardware, then jack up the profits on their own hardware.

I appreciate the message that there are people very concerned about porting to the Classmate because it would be seen as supporting a group that is perceived as an "enemy" which is working to attack the project. There is great concern that this will allow the perceived predatory attack to go forward full-steam, with the apparent blessing of the project.

So what do I think about all this? (I'm speaking as an individual here, obviously)

I tend to ascribe to people the motivations that they declare publicly and to reject cynicism about people's motivations. I hope that Intel is genuinely interested in, and committed in the long term to, educating children, and until I see convincing evidence to the contrary I will continue to hope that. My gut feeling is that Intel would not attempt such an obviously predatory ploy on such a hugely visible project[2], and that thus their motivations are likely elsewhere.

I hope that eventually they will work with us to make their various offerings part of the project, in at least the minimal sense of inter-operating and running the software and content that we're pulling together. I can hope that they'll devote the resources to helping make the development easier and the long-term prospects for children brighter.

But to my knowledge, as of today, Classmates are not yet part of the OLPC project in any way. While it might be nice to see it happen, it hasn't happened yet. The projects are not AFAIK coordinating, and there's no sharing of resources or effort.

OLPC doesn't currently have the internal bandwidth to support or even port to the Classmates. So if you're buying a Classmate there's no guarantee that it's ever going to run the OLPC software or have (easy) access to the OLPC content repositories and collections without some serious up-front work and long-term maintenance effort. Heck, the OLPC is not even involved in the Classmate project, so they aren't even being asked to guarantee anything :) .

Sales of Classmates today, as I've mentioned before, somewhat suck for the XO hardware part of the OLPC project because they delay the XO shipments from reaching the economies of scale that can get prices down to ~ $100 (thus increasing the number of areas that can afford it).

This is a simple matter of markets, there are only so many early-adopter countries currently looking to roll out a laptop-as-textbook strategy. Both the XO and the Classmate have advantages and disadvantages for various environments, and we cannot ascribe malice to the Classmate folks just because they want to push a different hardware platform. It may suck, but it's not likely to change.

The XO has a number of unique features that make it worth producing as a piece of hardware, particularly once the price point drops with volume. There are lots of places where those features don't matter, but there are also lots of places where they do.

So, back to the question at hand...

Do we need to port the OLPC software/content to the Classmate? I would strongly argue yes. Much of that argument is that we are an educational project, and we cannot expect commercial entities primarily concerned with computer development to invest in multi-year programs to produce educational software and content (though we would love it if they would).

Given that Classmates are already a reality on the ground, we need to be able to help educate those children. We would prefer that countries purchase the XO so that the cost can come down substantially, but in the end, we still want to help the children even if they were given a different type of machine.

Realistically we don't have any spare resources to throw at the problem today (or even likely in the near future, unless I get super-lucky). We need the core developers (and that includes our core volunteer developers) working on the core software, activities and the like, but we should encourage new developers to stand up and take on the porting project if they are interested.

Given the (AFAIK) for-profit nature of the Classmate, it might even be reasonably to ask Intel to fund the porting and maintenance effort itself, either through some external entity or directly... I don't think it would hurt them much to do so, anyway, but that's a question for Intel to address.

[1] Particularly having the press release on the Wiki, which doesn't make clear that in joining the board, the Classmate project did not merge into the OLPC project. There is a perception that this is being used to say a loose "we are part of the OLPC" and then sell the Classmate (linked to that perception of a predatory attack).

[2] Public relations nightmare when every little sneeze within the project echoes across Slashdot and all the other tech influencer sites.


  1. Kevin Mark

    Kevin Mark on 11/29/2007 1:31 p.m. #

    FLOSS is about community. The OLPC project is, at least for me, an extension of that community. Most of the software devs who are part of OLPC I'd expect to be FLOSS folks who I'd expect were excited by the initial project with those green laptops and its Gnu software origins. From the educational side, there's the association with MIT who are making the XO which has open hardware. All of the folks talking about OLPC are toting their little green machines. So who would ask about a classmate and want to develop for it? Where are the folks toting around a classmate in demonstations for OLPC? The classmate is a tacked-on project that did not start from the community. Its all uphill from there.

  2. Mike Fletcher

    Mike Fletcher on 11/30/2007 6:48 a.m. #

    Which, again, brings up the question of Intel (or someone) funding work on their hardware. The fact is that Intel *is* selling into countries, and children will have their hardware.

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