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OLPC software maker splits from X0 hardware, goes solo
Walter Bender, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project's former president of software, is launching a non-profit foundation that will continue development of OLPC's Sugar software platform. The new organization, which is called Sugar Labs, will coordinate ongoing community-driven Sugar development and will assist hardware makers that want to ship the platform.
"This is a very exciting time in the development of software for children's education," Bender said in a statement. "In the first generation of the Sugar UI, the free and open-source community has demonstrated an exceptional ability to create a platform that enables children to explore the world, share their discoveries and express themselves. As a separate foundation, we will be able to advance Sugar's development even further and make it available on multiple distributions and hardware platforms."
OLPC, which develops low-cost mobile education computers for developing countries, is suffering from a divisive internal battle over the future of the project's software platform. The dispute compelled Bender and other key figures to depart from the project. OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte has recently announced plans to make Microsoft's Windows XP operating system available on OLPC's XO laptop, leading some to argue that education is no longer on the project's agenda.
The Sugar software platform, which is built on top of Red Hat's Linux stack, includes a unique and distinctive user interface that offers "activities" instead of programs and a chronological journal instead of a conventional filesystem interface. Much of Sugar is written in the Python programming language which makes it easy to modify and extend. The activities included with the system provide support for word processing, web browsing, and multimedia. The system also includes an interactive Squeak-based programming environment that introduces young students to the basics of software development.
Sugar Labs intends to continue building and promoting the software and hopes that major hardware vendors will help it reach a broader audience. Bender recently told BetaNews that Sugar Labs is having "informal discussions" with at least four laptop manufacturers. In addition to collaborating with hardware vendors, Sugar Labs could also help schools and other education organizations install it on their existing Linux-compatible hardware. The software is already available for several Linux distributions, including Ubuntu.
The future of the OLPC project is presently in doubt as a result of significant manufacturing and deployment problems. The Sugar Labs strategy offers a more practical and realistic approach because it focuses largely on software and allows the hardware vendors to handle the production and deployment issues. Sugar Labs still faces some challenges of its own, however, because many critics—including OLPC's former security director—believe that the education theories behind Sugar are unproven.
Although Sugar Labs is a distinct and separate entity from OLPC with its own goals and priorities, the two projects are not competitors. As long as OLPC remains committed to making Sugar available to laptop buyers, the two organizations will be able to benefit from each others' work.