OLPC OS Now Available For Netbooks And Old PCs

Green-ITInnovationMobilityWorkspace

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), designed to bring computers to developing nations, was criticised for using new hardware. Now it’s available on a stick

The One Laptop Per Child’s strategy to bring computing to developing countries was criticised for requiring completely new hardware, instead of making use of existing systems. Now a former OLPC executive has put the operating system on a memory stick to be used on any system.

Not backed by OLPC itself, the so-called Sugar Learning Platform is the brain-child of Walter Bender – the former number two at the OLPC organisation, who left in April 2008 to set up his own not-for-profit group Sugar Labs.

In a statement released this week, Sugar Labs announced that the platform will be now be available on a USB stick and can load on Linux, Mac and even Windows machines using virtualisation. ‘Sugar on a stick version 1: Strawberry’ as it is colourfully known is still in the trial phase with a more fully functioning spec expected at the end of the year based on feedback from the strawberry release.

“One year after its founding, Sugar Labs is delivering on its education promise for its second million learners,” said Bender, founder and executive director of Sugar Labs. “Sugar is preferred because it is a superior learning experience for young children: engaging while being affordable.”

Bender added that as well as still being available on the OLPC XO-1 and XO-1.5 laptops, due later this year, Sugar on a Stick is also “well suited to slower, older PCs and low-powered netbooks”.

In 2007, Red Hat, which helped develop the Sugar OS, announced that it would be making an operating system based heavily on Sugar available on other platforms as part of its Global Desktop project. However, the strategy never really materialised despite repeated calls for information on its progress. Crucially, the Red Hat plan only made Sugar available for new machines – missing out the huge number of professionally refurbished machines that are sent to Africa and other developing nations every year.

africa4.jpg

The news that OLPC software can now be used on older PCs – often the only machines available in the developing world – should be greeted positively by environmental experts. Some groups have opposed the OLPC approach of building bespoke hardware rather than making use of donated PCs from the developed world which can find a useful life in schools long after they are deemed “old” by UK businesses.

For example IT charity Computer Aid, has refurbished more than 130,000 PCs and laptops, all of which are being used to support e-learning, e-health, e-inclusion and e-agriculture projects in countries such as Kenya, Madagascar and Zambia.

According to Sugar Labs, Sugar on a Stick reduces costs by “providing flexibility in hardware choices, allowing schools to keep their existing investment in hardware”. “Learners can benefit from the increased household ownership of computers; by bringing Sugar on a Stick home, every student has a consistent, comparable computing environment that parents can share in as well. It also provides off-line access to applications and content as not every learner has Internet access at home,” the organisation claims.

The availability of Sugar on netbooks may also please open source enthusiasts worried by the increasing dominance of Microsoft Windows of a hardware platform that was meant to champion Linux. In fact, some commentators may argue that the OLPC project was actually one of the main forerunners of the netbook so it only makes sense that the Sugar Labs attempt to reverse the trend of Windows dominating the platform by opening the Sugar operating system to other hardware.

In an interview with the BBC, Bender denied that he had left the OLPC project because of the decision by the organisation’s founder Nicholas Negroponte to allow a Windows version of the machine. Rather Bender said the move was “a symptom rather than the cause”.

At a Red Hat conference in 2006, Nicholas Negroponte appeared on stage to an audience of Linux enthusiasts and made much of his original decision to snub Microsoft boss Bill Gates and Intel with the first version of the OLPC XO Laptop.

“AMD is our partner, which means Intel is pissing on me. Bill Gates is not pleased either but, if I am annoying Microsoft and Intel, then I figure I am doing something right,” Negroponte said at the time.