OLPC's capitulation to Windows: A community failure?

Nicholas Negroponte's recent decision to embrace Windows seems to come down to a belief that when community fails, one must default to a proprietary vendor.

Is Nicholas Negroponte's capitulation to Windows last month due largely to a lack of open-source community involvement in the One Laptop Per Child project?

That's what Groklaw is suggesting--following a post by free software guru Richard Stallman.

According to Groklaw:

OLPC hoped for contribution from the community to its interface, Sugar, but this has not happened much. Partly that's because OLPC has not structured its development so as to reach out to the community for help--which means, when viewed in constructive terms, that OLPC can obtain more contribution by starting to do this.

Basically, Negroponte's decision to embrace Windows comes down to a belief that when community fails, default to whatever proprietary vendor makes the best interface. (If this is the case, Negroponte would have done well to choose the Mac's interface, but I digress...)

This is a weak-kneed, wrong-headed way for Negroponte--the founder and chairman of OLPC--to attempt to resolve the problem. It will only serve to perpetuate the very problem OLPC was designed to solve, as Groklaw writes:

I wonder if Negroponte has done (his due diligence) with regard to (Windows) XP. Is it going to be improved and extended or even maintained? Who will fix it when it crashes? Who will protect the little children from malware, which Microsoft software is so prone to be a victim of? Sugar and the XO (were) set up to provide real security. Can anyone say the same about Microsoft's software? What are you doing to those children?

OLPC isn't merely about cheap PCs. Anyone can build those ( though Microsoft's Windows certainly doesn't help there ). OLPC is rather about liberating developing nations from their vassal status that continually keeps them at the mercy of the pricing and licensing of Microsoft and other proprietary vendors. By building on Windows, Negroponte cuts his vision off at the knees, stultifying its potential to benefit children in developing nations.

As Stallman notes, it need not be this way. The problem derives from Negroponte's flawed attempts to build community. Put bluntly, Negroponte is no Linus Torvalds.

Negroponte has craved control, battering Intel and others for developing competing devices instead of finding ways to invite them into the OLPC community. He seems to want to be the center of attention, rather than letting the project attract developers on its own merits.

Negroponte needs to step back, take a deep breath, and encourage community adoption of OLPC. " Community" is an overused term and extremely difficult to manage in practice. "Encourage the community" is easily said, but is very difficult to accomplish in practice.

Even so, it's the only way to build OLPC in the image of those who will use the laptops. It's the only way to ensure maximum freedom within the project. It's worth the effort.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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