OLPC's Open Source Rift Deepens

by Ostatic Staff - May. 01, 2008

The situation at One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the organization behind the "$100 laptop," looks like it's going from bad to worse. As we've reported before, key personnel have recently walked out on the project. At the center of the conflict appears to be the issue of how deep the laptop's open source roots should be.

OLPC was started by several senior people at the MIT Media Laboratory, most notably Nicholas Negroponte and Walter Bender, with a great deal of input from pioneering educator and technologist Seymour Papert. The idea was to produce a laptop that was both rugged and inexpensive, that would be purchased by governments in lots of 1 million or more, and would be given for free to school-age children. By giving students access to computers, the thinking went, children in poor, third-world countries would have a chance to get an education that would otherwise be unavailable.

It should be noted that the point of the laptop project was not to give children access to the Internet, or to word processors, or even so that they could learn to touch-type. The idea was to provide children with an open-ended system with which they could tinker and explore -- and through that exploration, learn. Papert long referred to computers as "the children's machine," because it offers children the chance to learn by creating and sharing, two key elements of Papert's educational theory known as "constructionism."

Because the founders of OLPC wanted the system to be completely open to inspection and tinkering, using anything other than open-source software was not acceptable -- even at the cost of usability. Steve Jobs apparently offered to donate the Macintosh operating system, known as OS X -- but Papert declined this offer, explicitly because OS X isn't open source. To Papert, letting children inspect, modify, and improve the underlying operating system was an educational imperative.

With Papert largely incapacitated after a traffic accident in Vietnam, the battle between the advocates of open source and those favoring a more expedient solution has grown fiercer. Bender resigned from the presidency of the OLPC project last month, making it clear that the organization was moving in directions he opposed. Negroponte countered by calling many of the open-source advocates "fundamentalists," adding that he would be happy to have Microsoft Windows running on the laptop, if it meant getting the laptop out sooner and to more students.

Just two days ago, another voice joined the fray: None other than Richard Stallman, who coined the term "free software" and wrote the original GNU Public License, indicated his extreme displeasure over the movement toward Windows on the OLPC. Stallman is uncompromising in his principles, and goes so far as to say that he believes in free software, rather than open-source software -- a distinction that emphasizes values and freedom, rather than expediency, cost, and development methodologies. In many ways, he thus fits the image of a "fundamentalist" that Negroponte criticized earlier this month. But Stallman has always provided something of a moral compass for much of the open-source world -- and in coming out against Negroponte, he has made the fight even bigger than before.

Negroponte, in his various statements, argues that open-source licensing is one way of achieving the OLPC's goals, and that the main goal is the distribution of laptops as rapidly and cheaply as possible to the greatest number of children. The open-source advocates, by contrast, argue that distributing OLPC without a completely open-source stack would represent a Pyrrhic victory for educators.