OLPC tries to bridge gap with developer community

An OLPC official is reassuring developers that the project is committed to open-source software

A virtual uprising that broke out among developers questioning One Laptop Per Child's commitment to open-source software has prompted an official from the nonprofit effort to play peacemaker.

Doubts about OLPC's commitment to open-source software surfaced after Chairman Nicholas Negroponte criticized Sugar, the user interface that currently works with the Linux-based XO laptops. Negroponte asked developers to extend Sugar's development to Windows, which will make XO laptops more appealing to customers.

Without touching on the subject of Sugar for Windows, Kim Quirk, director of the technical team at OLPC, on Monday quelled any notion of OLPC abandoning open source.

"I'd like to reiterate that we at OLPC are committed to create Sugar as an open-source project, as it provides a great opportunity for both learners and for contributors," Quirk wrote in an e-mail.

Calling developers the linchpin of the project, Quirk called on the community to fix its communication problem to get the project back on track.

"This is difficult but it is not rocket science. I think we can do it. Sometimes when everyone is overworked, it is much easier to focus on the details of the day than to see the bigger problems," Quirk wrote.

Quirk is asking developers to focus on development as the public conversation has gotten off-task and off-message, said Wayan Vota, an OLPC observer who runs the OLPC News Web site.

There's a big ideological gap between developers, who espouse the XO laptop as a watershed open-source project, and OLPC, which wants to sell more cheap PCs, Vota said. Quirk is trying to bridge that gap while attempting to keep developers involved in the project.

Developer relations are important for the project's new organization, Vota said. The nonprofit organization recently restructured into four departments -- development, technology, deployment and learning -- and appointed a new president and chief operating officer, Charles Kane, to run its daily operations.

Quirk is capable of building a good relationship with developers as she has a strong background in implementing practical applications, Vota said.

OLPC's relations with developers went astray after the resignation of Walter Bender, OLPC's former president of software and content, in April, Vota said. Developers began debating XO's possible shift from Linux to Windows after the resignation of Bender, who gained a following in the open-source community by promoting open-source software for the XO despite growing efforts to load the laptop with Windows XP.

The developer community expressed further outrage after Negroponte's criticism of Sugar's development process, also questioning the idea of shifting from Linux to Windows on the XO laptop. Developers called Negroponte's vision "vague" and "demoralizing" for the future of Sugar.

Negroponte needs to clarify his vision to deliver a more sophisticated product, wrote Ivan Krstic, OLPC's former directory of security architecture, in an April blog entry. Krstic resigned in March to protest the organization's restructuring and "radical" change in goals.

If Sugar is a problem, Negroponte has no one but himself to blame, Krstic said. "Nicholas' recent claim of Sugar growing amorphously because it 'didn't have a software architect who did it in a crisp way' is similarly muddy: convincing him of the need for an architect is a battle Walter and I fought for months without success," Krstic wrote.

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service

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