There’s a lot of people who have written off the OLPC: a pet project of Negroponte that lost momentum the moment the old staff got jettisoned and replaced with a CEO who said “the mission is to get the technology in the hands of as many children as possible” (in stark contrast to Negroponte’s original “It’s an education project, not a laptop project.”. I think the worst criticism has come from those on the Get-One-Give-One projects, who have regularly expressed disappointed with Sugar, the OLPC’s user interface, and the general state of the software.
What I find fascinating — and this isn’t just true of open source projects, though I think it’s more transparently noticeable — is what happens after that bump of enthusiasm fades. I’m beginning to believe that the great advantage of more open software (whether it’s open standards or open source), is the growing importance of slow-cooked software.
Firefox is a great example. The original Mozilla project, in a commercial context, should have been shuttered long before Firefox was developed: it pretty much was shuttered, by AOL, its major sponsor. But still development trundled along, fixing bugs, developing new enthusiasms, attracting young turks, accreting knowledgeable coders. And it slowly got better. Far too slowly for anyone to notice, until the Phoenix/Firefox team turned it all inside out.
I’d say the same is true of Unix in general. People say that those who do not understand Unix are condemned to repeat it badly, but in everyone else’s defence, Unix’s smug position is largely due to Unix folk making all the mistakes, and then veeery slowly backing out of them over a period of decades. When other, proprietary, systems go over a cliff, you frequently never see them again: and certainly the market gives them no time to learn from their mistakes. Who knows the lessons that PenPoint learnt? A lot of OS X’s benefits come from being a slow-cooked product: years of gently baking the Cocoa class library under the faint heat of NeXT’s limited audience.
With everyone’s attention off the OLPC, it nonetheless abides. The platform has shipped something like 400,000 laptops already. They’re getting ready to release a new update of the software, based on the latest version of Fedora, and with a whole bunch of UI and activity updates. Most G1G1 users won’t know all this, sadly, because they’re not a school, and consequently miss out on a lot of the support that the OLPC is designed to benefit from (if you do have a XO sitting on a shelf, you might want to try the latest builds).
It’s still not quite there, in my opinion, but it’s getting somewhere. They’re learning lessons, and the lessons they’re learning are school lessons, taken from educator’s experience in developing countries. The hardware is still gorgeous, especially the screen, and they’re only just beginning to exploit its potential (the only bugbear being the mousepad which turned out to be a bit a of lemon: there’s a great deal of hacky code in place just to stop it from jumping around, and I believe they’ve abandoned its graphics tablet mode entirely).
It’s true — there was a great deal about the initial rollout of the OLPC that was screwed up, and if it was a strictly commercial concern, I wonder if it wouldn’t have gone to the wall by now. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t, and I’m fascinated to see what happens next.