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Interview with Walter Bender of Sugar Labs
Sunday, September 21 2008 @ 06:55 AM EDT

Sean Daly and I had the opportunity to interview by email Walter Bender, formerly president of software and content with OLPC and now the founder of Sugar Labs. Sugar Labs is the name of the nonprofit organization being established to support the development of the educational Sugar software, which was originally created for the One Laptop Per Child project. You don't need an XO laptop any more to try it, by the way. There's even a LiveCD of Sugar, if you would like to try it out without having to install anything or change your operating system. It's hardware agnostic.

We tried to ask Bender everything you'd want to know, like has Microsoft -- like some wicked witch cursing the newborn princess in a fairy tale -- ruined everything yet? Is Sugar/Linux being given last rites on the XO? What about the Intel Classmate push to rule the developing world's laptops for schools? Did they win that smarmy race?

I'm happy to tell you that Sugar is still being distributed with the OLPC. Sugar is now in the hands of a half a million children and teachers worldwide, Bender says. And Intel apparently did not set the world on fire with Classmates. In June, Intel seemed to be hinting that it might in the future use a version of Sugar itself, although the goal of competing against OLPC seems not to have changed, judging from this article by a guy who got Sugar installed on Classmate 2 and summarizes his impression of the result:

Well, the good and cosy feeling of "helping the world" is not present anymore. The green ears are missing, the sweetness factor is gone...

Your kids will not look at it and sigh, love it and then leave it in a corner. But they will love it because they can actually do things with it.

I see what I call the Intel nobility factor is still present. But if kids get their hands on Sugar, which they can precisely because Sugar is FOSS, I'm delighted. There's a symmetry to the irony of Intel with Sugar maybe competing against OLPC with XP. And the author's mistaken that the sweetness factor is gone. Sugar lives.

OLPC continues to ship Sugar on XOs, and for the foreseeable future they will continue to ship it. And no matter what, the software will continue. That's the purpose of Sugar Labs.

But there is the first small pilot project with XP on XOs. Reading about it makes me sad. Gizmodo, reporting on the pilot project seems to have taken its copy from somebody's press release:

The main advantage of the XOs with Microsoft Windows is that students can learn using a widely recognized universal tool which represents a window to the globalized world.

Offered through Microsoft Unlimited Potential, the Student Innovation Suite is a collection of Microsoft's best education software offerings designed to help implement sustainable technology programs in partnership with governments and non-governmental organizations that benefit students and transform the educational opportunities in their communities. The education suite includes Windows XP Pro, Microsoft Office 2003 Standard, and Learning Essentials 1.0 for Microsoft Office.

Learn what? A proprietary vendor's older applications, one of which is already in the used-to-be-supported pile? I hate to break it to them, but none of those elements in the education suite are "universal tools". For that matter, if you look at the curve, what do you think the computing ecosystem will look like when those kids are adults? XP Pro and Office 2003? Here's a quotation from the guy who is the president of OLPC now:

"This pilot in Peru represents an important milestone in the evolution of One Laptop per Child," said Charles Kane, President of One Laptop per Child. "It demonstrates our ability to collaborate with Microsoft to provide governments a choice of operating system on the XO laptop."

Well. It's a milestone. I'll go that far. I guess you have to talk like that when Microsoft is giving you money and help. Please contrast this recent explanation from Bender about his educational goals:

For the past 30 months, I have been part of an effort to bring about a global transformation of education through the provision of connected "ultra-low-cost" laptop computers; computers that will provide an agency through which to positively impact learning, and consequently, everything that learning impacts, in particular, economic development.

This work has been about giving children who don't have the opportunity for learning that opportunity: it is about access; it is about equity; and it is about giving the next generation of children in the developing world a bright and open future.

Even a child can see the difference, don't you think? Surely a teacher should be able to. I wonder about this alleged craving by governments for Microsoft products. They could already get XP on Intel's Classmates, after all.

If you are a teacher, why not give Sugar a whirl and see for yourself? There is no time limit on using the software, no limit to how many computers you can install with one copy of Sugar. Or try the LiveCD. There's no cost, except burning it to a CD. And you and your class can have the fun of trying it, even if you are frozen into another operating system by the powers that be. It also lets you find out before installation how your hardware will work out. The only difference with a LiveCD is that it's usually a bit slower than the same software would be installed, and if you want to save your work, you need to save it to an outside storage device, like a hard drive, a thumb drive, a writable CD or DVD, or, if you still have them, floppies. I seriously doubt that any child, given a choice, will choose Windows, frankly, so dual booting worries me not at all.

Sugar Labs, then, while continuing to work with OLPC, is now also working as a separate community project, with the following goals and principles, as explained in the FAQ:

The purpose of the Sugar platform is provide a software and content environment that enhances learning. Towards this end, Sugar is designed to facilitate learners to “explore, express, debug, and critique.” Sugar Labs subscribes to principle that learning thrives within a culture of freedom of expression, hence it has a natural affinity with the free and open-source software movement....

The core Sugar platform has been developed under a GNU General Public License (GPL); individual activities may be under different licenses....

Sugar Labs was established as an independent entity in order to facilitate the growth of Sugar beyond any single hardware platform. While Sugar Labs has a cooperative working relationship with OLPC, it is by no means an exclusive or proprietary relationship. Sugar Labs is not bound to any specific hardware platform or Linux distribution....OLPC and Sugar Labs are not diverging, we are on the same page....

So, OLPC continues to distribute Sugar on Fedora Linux. Guess where Microsoft and OLPC decided to run the pilot, though? Somewhere no one has a laptop yet? No. In Peru, where there are already many XOs. You may remember the report from Peru last March by Ivan Krstić, who created the security system for the XO, Bitfrost, and is also the author of The Official Ubuntu Book. Why then, Bender wonders, would Microsoft/OLPC choose Peru, of all places?
Bender: Microsoft recently announced a small pilot in Peru—on the order of 10s or 100s of machines. OLPC continues to ship on the order of 50,000 machines each month running GNU/Linux/Sugar. I believe that there are more than 100,000 XO laptops in Peru, all running GNU/Linux/Sugar, so the Microsoft pilot is insignificant in regard to the overall picture. I continue to work with teachers and educators in Peru on advancing the use of Sugar, both from within the Ministry of Education and directly with the community, so it seems that interest in Sugar has not waned. However, one has to ask the question of Microsoft (and OLPC): if the goal of XP on the XO is to reach children who are not being reached by the current program, why are they in Peru instead of somewhere that hasn't been able to do a one-laptop-per-child program due to the alleged inadequacies of GNU/Linux/Sugar? A cynical interpretation of the events would be that Microsoft is more interested in derailing the Peru efforts than building upon them.
If so, I wish them Intel's Classmate success.

The thing about FOSS is this: it's very hard to kill it off, because individuals simply keep on coding, keep on sharing, and while you can slow it down with vendor muscle and resources, you can't kill it off or subvert it. Why not? Because the license, in this case the GPL, means the software remains, no matter what, and you don't need a building or a sponsor to write software. And there's no single neck to wring or executive to buy off. If you want to speed up the work of developing Sugar, of course donating money is always nice. Or you can get involved in the technical work or writing documentation or translating.

That's the thing about FOSS. There's no single choke point. No way to buy it off or pollute it or subvert it, so long as the community continues to hold to its values and purpose. Anyone can try Sugar and modify it and build on it and have brainstorms that benefit everyone afterward. Anyone. How do you kill something like that? It's like grass. You can pour concrete over it, and it will still grow, pushing through every crack in a sidewalk to reach the sun's rays, and then it grows and spreads and flourishes.

Here's a brainstorm from Africa, by the way:

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources (AVOIR) project have released version 1.0.1 of the Chisimba/KEWL3 Realtime Virtual Classroomj.

Avoir is a a collaboration of 13 African universities specialising in creating free software relevant to African users.

The virtual classroom application allows presentations to be uploaded in PowerPoint or OpenOffice format and made available online as well as embedded in websites or blogged.

The Realtime Tools allow the presentation to be picked up and given live on the site, in a realtime virtual classroom setting....

Downloadable versions of the software will be available in Debian, RPM, Java and Windows executable formats. The Debian version is currently available. Users can test drive the software online on the demo site. AVOIR project leader, Derek Keats of UWC, says that this is the first application of its kind in the world that is free software. “It demonstrates the remarkable, world class talent that we have in Africa and what can be achieved when we collaborate to accomplish something.”

You can try it out online, after a simple registration, here. For you teachers, here's how to install Chisimba on XP, speaking of subversion.

[ Update: Here's a great comment from Slashdot:

Any responsible politician should be encouraging a home grown FOSS industry because it creates the basis for future jobs. Learning Windows is like learning to eat every meal at McDonalds.
The comment is by Pieter Hintjens, who certainly captures it perfectly.]

And finally, here's the interview with Walter Bender.

Interview with Walter Bender, Sugar Labs
by Sean Daly and PJ

PJ: What's going on with XP and XO? Particularly in Peru? What's the plan?

Walter Bender: A bit of background: in November of 2007, Microsoft first demonstrated an early version of XP running off of an SD card inserted into the OLPC hardware to OLPC and engaged in a discussion about what might be done to be able to offer XP as an option on the OLPC XO-1 hardware. At the time we responded with some principles of engagement: (1) OLPC was an open platform, so Microsoft was as welcome as anyone else to develop for it; (2) nothing should compromise the safety and security of the machine (more on this in a moment); (3) we should strive for interoperability at the network level, so that, for example, a machine running XP can forward packets for a machine running Linux on the mesh; and (4) we should strive for a level of interoperability on the collaboration level, so that at a minimum, children would be able to chat between systems and exchange documents.

As there didn't seem to be any means of implementing the XP anti-theft system on the XO hardware, it was recommended that XP be launched from Open Firmware, thus taking advantage of the Bitfrost anti-theft system. This has the side-effect of enabling an XO to be able to boot either XP or Linux. Mitch Bradley then set about implementing this dual-boot scenario. Nicholas Negroponte made a lot of noise about the dual-boot nature of the machine (although he never explained how schools that have to stretch to support even one operating system would be suddenly able to support two -- or how dual-boot is practical as a mainstream solution in the field!)

I left OLPC soon thereafter, so I can only answer this question from the perspective of someone watching OLPC and Microsoft from the outside -- I don't presume to have any inside knowledge of what OLPC or Microsoft intends to do with XP.

Negroponte has said that he believes he will be able to sell several orders of magnitude more laptops with XP than with Linux. He has mentioned numbers as high as 200 million laptops in 2009 running XP. His often-quoted rationale is: "When I went to Egypt for the first time, I met separately with the minister of communications, minister of education, minister of science and technology, and the prime minister, and each one of them, within the first three sentences, said, 'Can you run Windows?'" (What he fails to mention is that I met with the minister of finance and, while he too asked about Windows, it only took 15-20 minutes to convince him of the economic opportunity presented by Linux.) OLPC also had some "red" laptops built with additional NAND Flash in order to accommodate the needs of XP. (I've never actually seen one of these machines.)

It is also not clear to me that the lack of XP is holding up laptop sales. The evidence is at best ambiguous. For example, Intel, which offers XP on its Classmate PC, had sold an order of magnitude *fewer* machines than OLPC, with a GNU/Linux-only offering.

Microsoft recently announced a small pilot in Peru—on the order of 10s or 100s of machines. OLPC continues to ship on the order of 50,000 machines each month running GNU/Linux/Sugar. I believe that there are more than 100,000 XO laptops in Peru, all running GNU/Linux/Sugar, so the Microsoft pilot is insignificant in regard to the overall picture. I continue to work with teachers and educators in Peru on advancing the use of Sugar, both from within the Ministry of Education and directly with the community, so it seems that interest in Sugar has not waned. However, one has to ask the question of Microsoft (and OLPC): if the goal of XP on the XO is to reach children who are not being reached by the current program, why are they in Peru instead of somewhere that hasn't been able to do a one-laptop-per-child program due to the alleged inadequacies of GNU/Linux/Sugar? A cynical interpretation of the events would be that Microsoft is more interested in derailing the Peru efforts than building upon them.

Whatever the motivations of Microsoft, let's hope that their participation in the one laptop per child efforts means more children get more access to more computing.

PJ: What's the latest with Sugar? Where is it currently being used/sent? Figures showing spread of Sugar would be good.

Walter Bender: We have achieved five major milestones over the first 100 days of Sugar Labs:

(1) The Sugar 0.82 release is complete. This represents a refresh of the Sugar system with many many bug-fixes, enhancements, and overall streamlining of the user interface. If you haven't tried it yet, you are in for a pleasant surprise—it is great.

(2) We have been working upstream with the Debian, Ubuntu, and Fedora distributions and Sugar is now packaged as part of these distributions. Getting Sugar is now as easy as typing "apt-get sugar". If you have a computer that can run one of these distributions, which is most computers, you can run Sugar.

(3) We have much better LiveCD/LiveUSB support for Sugar, so you can try Sugar on, for example, a Windows machine, without making any changes to the machine itself. In schools where even teachers are not allowed to make changes to the computer, i.e., most schools, this will greatly facilitate their being able to explore what Sugar can do for them.

(4) We have a growing community of educators who are engaging in discussions about Sugar with the development community. It is through this dialog that Sugar will be able to continue to evolve in ways that are helping teachers and learners. Indeed, the teachers are beginning to reach the point where they realize that they can appropriate the machine and develop new tools and practices themselves and that they are part of a global community of support.

(5) We are in the final stages of parking Sugar Labs into the Software Freedom Conservancy, thus ensuring the project will have a home regardless of whatever way the wind blows in Redmond or Cambridge.

I don't have a spreadsheet or map of Sugar deployments at the moment, but it is in the hands of more than 500,000 children and teachers in places as different as the Solomon Islands and New York City.

PJ: What does the future hold? Many in the community have stopped supporting OLPC, because of what Nicholas said about Windows, and the news from Peru is getting media attention as a Kill-Sugar/Linux story. But isn't Peru just a trial? And suppose it's successful, then what happens? Can you clarify all that?

Walter Bender: I think that Sugar, while still a relatively new project, has already shown great impact and even greater potential for learners. There is a growing community of Sugar users, developers, and supporters. New activites are being written on a regular basis. There have been aggressive efforts by the community to document Sugar and translate it into local languages (there was just a sprint to translate Sugar into Aymará). And as I mentioned, dialog with teachers is growing, especially in Latin America. So while there may be some loss of support for OLPC within the FOSS community, the support for Sugar seems to be growing. (I should point out that there is a dedicated team of developers at OLPC who believe deeply in the importance of FOSS to learning.)

If the XP trial in Peru is "successful", then I suppose that Microsoft will try to spread that success in the marketplace. I hope that they try to grow new markets and reach new children rather than simply try to displace the current OLPC deployments, as the latter is not of additive benefit to anyone except Microsoft shareholders.

But what is success? Selling more copies of XP, albeit at $3 each, and generating business for SD manufacturers—currently XP means ~US $25 increase in the price of the XO laptop—isn't going to change the lives of children. We have to look broadly at our metrics of success: children learning to learn and apply that learning to authentic problems within their communities. Hopefully that learning will lead to economic development, independence of thought, and an increased pool of creative, inventive individuals who can contribute to helping address the various challenges humanity faces. A big agenda and not one that will be solved by learning how to use a stripped-down version of Office.

PJ: Technically, I see on the OLPC Wiki that Microsoft has responded to claims that XP is slow on the XO. That would hardly surprise anyone, but what are the facts? And what is Learning Essentials?

Walter Bender: I don't know the facts because I haven't access to XP on an XO, although I did see what was allegedly the latest version recently. It had anti-virus software running, which made the machine almost unusable. Presumably Microsoft has a plan to run XP without anti-virus protection and still keep the machines malware-free.

"Unlimited potential" is double-speak for "limited capability." It is a hobbled version of XP, which is an operating system that Microsoft is phasing out. (Lots of potential there.) Learning Essentials are also from marketing. "Learning Essentials for Microsoft Office 2.0 provides education-specific tools for students and educators to get the most out of their familiar Microsoft Office applications. Curriculum-based templates and toolbars for Microsoft Office Word, the Microsoft Office PowerPoint(R) presentation graphics program and Microsoft Office Excel(R) spreadsheet software help students and educators get started, stay organized and successfully complete high-quality work." It even includes special toolbars for "math symbols, and foreign language keys." Everything a future office worker needs to know.

PJ: Overall, if it were to happen that down the road there is a dual boot of Sugar/XP, what do you think will happen?

Walter Bender: While dual boot is technically feasible, as I already mentioned, I think it is not the least bit practical and will never see wide use in the field. Asking a school to support multiple operating systems is not practical—a powerful argument by Microsoft for maintaining the status quo that is currently failing our children.

PJ: What about criticism that Sugar is unable to prepare children for work in the "real world"? Is it the case that countries were demanding XP? If so, I can't help but wonder if they've asked themselves what the future holds for those kids. The world will move on to Vista and the next and the next, but how in the world can Vista ever be used? It's such a hog. If there is a plan for updating, what is it?

Walter Bender: What is work in the real world? Using Word and Powerpoint? Or learning to engage in critical thinking and use computation as a thing to think with? Where are the jobs going to come from? Can we raise a generation of children who are creative, expressive, truly unbounded in the potential, who know how to problem-solve? What country (or company) would really want to build a dependency on Microsoft when they could appropriate the tools and knowledge locally and be self-deterministic? What country wouldn't want to have the option of supporting their local languages and cultures? But alas, as it used to be said, "no one ever got fired for buying IBM." From middle-management's perspective, XP is the risk-free choice. It won't disappear overnight.

SD: Common wisdom says you can build a laptop that is small, powerful, or inexpensive, but only two out of the three. Do you agree? Does Sugar have an orientation in this regard?

Walter Bender: Sugar is hardware agnostic these days, but it was designed with the assumption that it would be run on a low-powered (in terms of MIPS and memory) machine. It holds its own vs XP.

SD: Sooner or later when discussing OLPC, one hears about Constructionism. Is the Constructionist approach a guiding or necessary aspect of distributing laptops to children for learning? Of designing an interface for them? Why or why not?

Walter Bender: Most computers, by their nature as being Turing-complete, are theoretically capable of computing anything. Likewise, most computers, regardless of what software they are running, can be used for Constructionist or Instructionist approaches to learning, among others. What we have tried to do with the Sugar learning platform is skew the odds such that the children and their teachers engage in a process of learning through expressing, debugging, critiquing and reflecting. We've built explicit affordances into the interface to facilitate and encourage these actions, but not to the exclusion of instructing, which will happen regardless of our interventions.

SD: There's general consensus that the OLPC XO launched the fast-growing "netbook" or "UMPC" market. Is this new class of computers on the go a golden opportunity for Sugar? for GNU/Linux and free software in general?

Walter Bender: I think this is a great opportunity for GNU/Linux because GNU/Linux is better suited for low-power, small footprint machines. XP is a dead product and Vista is so bloated as to be completely unsuitable for these smaller, more nimble machines. Sugar, of course, can run on all of these platforms.

SD: I had the privilege of donating an XO through the Give One, Get One (G1G1) program and I must say I am delighted with the XO I received. I particularly appreciate the uncluttered and pragmatic activity-oriented approach of Sugar - I felt this is an interface Raymond Loewy would admire. Some say that even today's simplest computing devices remain too complicated for most people. What's your point of view? What can Sugar bring to this problem?

Walter Bender: I am glad you enjoy Sugar. I encourage you to try the newest version, which in many respects is even simpler and cleaner than what we shipped in the G1G1 program. But Sugar is more than just uncluttered. While simplicity remains a goal, we also designed Sugar to enable one to aspire to and reach to complexity. Because the world is not simple. We don't want to mask complexity, but we provide a set of readily accessible building blocks from which to wrestle with it. That is where the learning happens and where the richness of life is found.

PJ: Some, adults mainly, who get the XO want to put standard distros on it instead of Sugar, like Ubuntu. Have you thought conceptually about maybe making Sugar usable to adults or older children in addition to smaller children? Is there a way to design in solitary activities that are appropriate to that demographic without ruining the educational aspects of Sugar?

Walter Bender: First of all, Ubuntu and Fedora, running traditional desktops such as GNOME are quite useful. The Sugar model of a single window at a time is not suitable for every task and not compatible with every existing application. (The Gimp, for example, opens tens of windows on the desktop. Tabbing through them is not very efficient.) What we have done is made it very easy to wrap Sugar around essentially any GNU/Linux application (including Wine for running Windows apps) and there is an X Activity that will launch a multi-window environment within Sugar for times when that is appropriate or necessary. So even today, Sugar does not preclude children from accessing "traditional" computing environment and metaphors such as overlapping windows, double clicking, and hierarchical file system browsers. But we have learned that many of these traditional affordances are flawed—try double-clicking when your hands are arthritic. Sugar rejected the need to retain these "comforts" and it doesn't take but a few hours with a Sugar interface to realize that you don't miss them.

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