Sugar Beyond the XO Laptop: Walter Bender on OLPC, Sucrose 0.84, and “Sugar on a Stick”

Many people wouldn’t touch coffee or cereal without sugar. And the XO laptop would be useless without Sugar—the standard, Linux-based graphical interface for the little green laptop, nearly a million of which have been distributed to classrooms in developing countries by the Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation.

While OLPC and Microsoft have been talking for nearly a year about shipping XO laptops that run Windows XP rather than Linux and Sugar, that hasn’t yet happened. Which means Sugar and the XO are still cohabitating, despite the acrimonious divorce last year between OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte and Sugar creator Walter Bender, the foundation’s former president of software. In fact, not only are Sugar and all the programs that come with it (“activities,” in Sugar lingo) still the keys to the XO laptop’s educational value, but they’re spreading beyond the XO to other platforms—and may well end up overshadowing the little laptop when it comes time to write the histories of technology and education in the developing world.

Bender came by Xconomy’s Cambridge office yesterday to give us the latest news about Sugar, whose development is now led by Sugar Labs, the non-profit, open source community he set up after leaving OLPC last April. Sugar Labs—which Bender says is based in “cyberspace,” though he himself works from his home office in Newton, MA—provides a forum for the global community of educators and volunteer developers that has sprung up to support and extend Sugar.

Perhaps the biggest piece of news from Sugar Labs is that Sugar is going portable: the community has created a version of the Linux-Sugar stack that can be copied to a so-called “Live USB” thumb drive, which can then be used to boot virtually any laptop or desktop PC into the Sugar environment. Bender calls it “Sugar on a Stick,” and he’s in discussions with USB drive manufacturers to create a branded version that would be available for sale from the Sugar Labs website (though you can also create your own version for free). The implications are big: separating Sugar from the XO means that any child or teacher, in Minneapolis or Mumbai, could take advantage of Sugar’s educational tools without having to wait for OLPC to find funding to get XO laptops into their schools.

And next month, Sugar itself is getting an upgrade, in the form of the next major release, called “Sucrose 0.84.” Bender says he and the Sugar community have built some major improvements into the new release, including a better system for storing and accessing saved work (the Sugar environment is built around an automatic diary called the Journal rather than old-fashioned files and folders); easier ways for users to edit the Python source code underlying Sugar activities; and a portfolio presentation tool designed to make it easier for students and teachers to engage in periodic critiques. As Bender explains, critiques of open-ended problem-solving work—as opposed to standardized testing of students’ performance on closed-form problems like arithmetic or vocabulary questions—are a big element in the constructionist educational philosophy from which Sugar grew.

When OLPC announced drastic staff cuts last month, the last two people who were being paid full-time to work on Sugar development lost their jobs. And Sugar Labs has yet to raise the money Bender says it needs to bring the community together for more face-to-face brainstorming and software critiques. But overall, it sounds like the split between OLPC and the Sugar community may end up being a healthy one, with each platform now free to develop in its own direction. Indeed, Bender says “a lot of people have actually come forward now [to help with Sugar] because they see a cleaner separation between the two organizations.”

Certainly, “Sugar on a Stick”—or on a netbook, or another low-cost laptop like the ASUS Eee PC—could help the software find its way into classrooms around the world much faster than OLPC is able to build and distribute XOs. And if there’s one thing Negroponte and Bender agree about, it’s that the One Laptop effort is about learning, not about hardware.

An edited version of our interview follows.

Xconomy: Thanks for coming by. So, where are you with Sugar?

Walter Bender: [Holding up a USB thumb drive] This is where we are. Live USB is going to be a really big part of Sugar in the next year or two, because it’s an easy way in the door. Most schools’ IT departments don’t even let teachers install software. The overhead associated with large IT infrastructures forces these people to be very conservative about adopting new ideas. So having Sugar on a stick means we can hand this to a teacher or a student and they don’t have to have any impact on the existing infrastructure at all. They can be off to the races using Sugar and all its advantages, in a computer lab, a classroom, at the library, at home, on their parent’s computer, at an Internet cafe—wherever they can get a computer that they can boot off a USB, which is most computers these days. Everything is stored on the USB, so essentially, your schoolwork walks around with you, in the form of your journal. We think it’s going to really make Sugar a lot more accessible.

X: It sounds like “Sugar on a Stick” lets you pretend you’re using an XO laptop, without actually having one.

WB: You get all the advantages of the XO software environment, but you don’t need to be tied to any particular hardware. You don’t even need a laptop—you could do it with a desktop. So, that’s a big thrust, in terms of our strategy for outreach and getting Sugar into the hands of more kids.

X: But if you boot into Sugar on a home computer or a library computer, aren’t you missing the mesh networking built into the XO and the collaboration aspect that’s so important to the pedagogical theory behind Sugar?

WB: When you stick in the Live USB, you’ve got Sugar and you’ve got collaboration. You might not be doing the collaboration through peer-to-peer networking; you might be doing it through Jabber [an open-source instant messaging platform]. But the mesh-networking is not necessary to make Sugar work. It’s a nice-to-have. And one issue with a lot of schools is that they don’t want kids using the Internet—-they want to keep the kids containerized. With Live USB, you could run a classroom environment over a local Jabber server and have the kids collaborate without ever going out onto the net.

X: What are your plans for distributing the USB version? Can people make their own?

WB: If you’ve got a blank USB drive, you can download the Sugar image off our website. For Windows and Ubunto and Fedora, there are utilities for writing the image to a USB key. There must be one for the Mac as well. At conferences, we set up little USB stations so that if you’ve got a key, you can walk up and we’ll make you an image right there. I’m also talking with a couple of USB manufacturers about … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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14 responses to “Sugar Beyond the XO Laptop: Walter Bender on OLPC, Sucrose 0.84, and “Sugar on a Stick””

  1. ms says:

    I wish I could get the Pippy activity by itself so I could use it on other OSs. It’s a great little python learning program that those guys put into the OLPC.

  2. In 2006 I compared the price of a basic PC that year with the equivalent in 1997 and did the same for software designed to be used by the blind. Interestingly enough the price of a basic PC had gone down by over 80% (adjusted for inflation) and the price of software used by most blind students went up by more than 20%. Moral of the story, it is not the hardware we need to worry about, it is the software.

    The same dramatic price drop is taking place with laptops in general and USB Flash drives in particular; and the latter has a much smaller ecological footprint not to mention portability and reduced theft concerns, etc.

    Today I only worry about the software because there are billions being spent to make the hardware better and cheaper while FOSS programs are hard to get a hold of if you are not technically sophisticated. That is why I have adopted the Live USB Flash drive strategy as well; cheap portable and with all the advantages of FOSS. Sugar will now be vastly more successful than OLPC, you can be sure of that.

    Well done!

  3. mark says:

    “the XO laptop would be useless without Sugar”

    I refuse to read the rest of the article based on this statement alone. Mine runs DebXO/Gnome, not Sugar. Goodbye

  4. mark: Funny you should say that given that later in the article they specifically mention that people who are interested in other things besides education can run different distros on it.

  5. Wolfgang Rohrmoser says:

    I also want to mention the XO-LiveCD project.

    You just download an ISO file burn it on a CD
    and you have a running OLPC/Sugar desktop
    with more than 50 activities, collaboration and
    much more …

    Since about 6 month there is also a script included
    which flashes the image on a USB Stick. The
    documentation also explains how the image can
    be easly installed on harddisk parallel to existing
    other operation systems ….

  6. Dave Marney says:

    The link to the TAPortfolio Activity is broken. It should be

    Thanks for the interesting article.

  7. Thanks Dave, I have fixed the link for Wade, who is out on his next interview.

  8. ck says:

    # mark — 2/5/09 4:01 pm
    “I refuse to read the rest of the article based on this statement alone. Mine runs DebXO/Gnome, not Sugar. Goodbye”

    Way to go. Not sure you understand the intent here, as you’re also not an 8 yr old kid in a developing nation. Good you’ve found a nice way to stay close minded though.

  9. Bob says:

    Basically, I’m having an extremely difficult time getting Sugar** running. The flash drive option is awash because changing the bios booting order is more than tricky; the CD option is beyond my understanding. I’m not advanced in my understanding of computers, but I should think such a program should be absolutely easy. At least as easy as they make it sound. How do you run the ISO run CD
    for instance is readily detail….Makes me wonder….