different perspectives

Sameer Verma sverma at sfsu.edu
Wed Nov 6 12:42:18 EST 2013

On Mon, Nov 4, 2013 at 7:50 PM, Sameer Verma <sverma at sfsu.edu> wrote:
> Dear Community,
> As I was listening to the interviews of some of the OLPC SF Summit
> attendees, I was amazed at the richness of diversity in perspectives.
> In spite of being a part of this community since July 2007, and trying
> to keep up with all that is OLPC and Sugar, these interviews threw me
> off a bit.
> The videos are uploading as I write this. They'll be available at
> https://www.youtube.com/user/olpcsf/videos soon. Bill Stelzer, who
> usually interviews and runs the camera asks people a handful of
> questions. So, here's a little community exercise. Why not ask you all
> the same?
> 1) What brought you into the OLPC and/or Sugar project(s)?

Back in 2005, most of my research was on the user perspective of free
and open source software. OLPC was promising to be a rich source. I
did not know anything about Sugar, or constructivist learning, or the
fact that these machines were largely for children. I was also looking
for a way to provide Internet access to my family in Bhagmalpur,
India, so my uncle could look up information on farming techniques. I
saw an XO at OSCON 2007 for the first time. Rob Savoye (Gnash) was
showing it around. OLPC laptops sounded a better alternative to
sending old desktops and CRT monitors to Bhagmalpur, so I jumped in. I
wrote to the developer program, and Jim Gettys send me an XO!

> 2) What keeps you going in the OLPC and/or Sugar project(s)?

Initially, it was the excitement of a new thing. Then, I started to
read up on the educational side of it, and got hooked. I also admired
the non-stop ability of the core team to solve difficult problems.
They wouldn't take no for an answer, and came up with novel, yet
objective ways to solve problems. That zeal, combined with my very own
personal barometer in Bhagmalpur kept me plugged (and it still does).
OLPC SF became the fun thing to do/focus on locally. Visiting Jamaica
on my sabbatical leave was the catalyst for getting a deployment going
(now grown to 4 schools). Eventually, I got enough G1G1 XOs to
populate Bhagmalpur with 26 XOs in houses across the village. Bringing
OLPC/Sugar into my teaching, research and service allows me to work on
projects and not simply pursue these projects as a personal interest.

> 3) What are the challenges you face in the OLPC and/or Sugar project(s)?

Over the years, the teams churn through. Each churn takes away some
ideas, and replace these with newer ideas. The trouble is with things
that get lost between the cycles. Many biases come in with each
developer pool, and not all ideas are vetted thoroughly. There was
always a lot of mystery about how decisions were made at the company,
be it in Cambridge, or at Miami. Not being an employee, I typically
resigned to whatever comes down the mailing list pipeline. I
understand that outsiders getting in the way of business is difficult,
but the OLPC community + company partnership (if there was ever one)
never really sat well with me. As OLPC transitioned from the
Foundation to the Association, the "free and open source" went
neglected. Management really didn't understand the core of why FOSS
was important. They probably saw it as a source of software, but not
as an ongoing ecosystem. FOSS does not have strategic significance it
should at OLPCA.

OLPCF on the other hand, struggled with marketing. I'm not talking
about advertising. I'm talking about getting the ideas out so people
could understand it easily. Telling people about your ideas at their
level of understanding makes a major difference. They couldn't tell
the world how important their work was. It didn't translate to the
outside. I was at PLoS.org last week, and about a third of the
staffers there came up and asked me about what that thing (my XO) was.
At least people in this sphere should have known! There was also the
blanket refusal to work with boutique projects at OLPCF. That led to a
"no room for retail" mentality. Retailing would have helped.

OLPCA on the other hand struggles with strategy. Most of what they do
is operational at best. I realize that it is hard to stay the course
when the hardware and software industries focus so much on particular
combinations (think Android and ARM), but increasingly, the tail is
wagging the dog. Letting sales run an organization doesn't last for
too long :-(

Not being a developer myself, keeping up with Sugar's roadmap has been
difficult. These projects are heavily driven by technology. I am used
to an environment where the end user has a fair bit of say in the
matter, but I never got a good sense of whether Sugar as a project was
really getting good input. It's a difficult balance between listening
to your users and going the Jobs way (users don't know what they
want). I don't perceive these to be transparency issues as much as
translation issues - the ideas in people's heads don't make it to the
other side. This leads to a large variance in understanding different
aspects of the project as a whole. When we don't have a strategic
understanding of a project, we instead resort to operational
efficiency. Open source projects are notorious for being operationally
excellent, but strategically poor.

> 4) What would you change/do differently so OLPC and/or Sugar
> project(s) could do better?


While OLPCF is pretty much non-existent, I think retailing XOs would
have helped. Even finding a way to do Value Added Resellers would have
helped. They should have thought of ways to support and foster smaller
projects. Contributor Program was great, but it's role in the bigger
picture wasn't clear. There should have been a better feedback loop
for CP.


Get a real marketing person. Someone who understands how marketing
works, and give them the latitude they need. Marketing properly leads
to better understanding of the value proposition of the product, which
leads to sales, which leads to ongoing relationships.

Think of ways in which the community and goodwill can be leveraged
properly. Have community representation on the Board. For instance, I
am on the Board of the Drupal Association. We have two community
elected people on the board. That's very helpful. Currently, I don't
think anyone at OLPCA knows anything about the community.

Sugar can do better by unhitching itself from the current anchors of
the XO, and Fedora. It is encouraging to see Sugar run on other
platforms and distributions. The value proposition of Sugar is still
difficult to understand, especially for people who have already used a
computer with Windows or Mac or even Linux. It is easier to position
Sugar as an alternative instead of a replacement. Making that
alternative available easily on existing devices will help.

> Reply-all in your answers.
> cheers,
> Sameer
> --
> Sameer Verma, Ph.D.
> Professor, Information Systems
> San Francisco State University
> http://verma.sfsu.edu/
> http://commons.sfsu.edu/
> http://olpcsf.org/
> http://olpcjamaica.org.jm/

More information about the Devel mailing list