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

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create things with Sugar. And just as HTML editors and word processors that exported HTML made building Web pages accessible to a lot more people, so Sugar is entering a phase of having a set of tools for creation.

X: Unfortunately, the problem with a lot of those HTML editors, like FrontPage or Dreamweaver, was that they evolved to the point where the HTML code they were churning out was no longer human-readable or accessible to amateurs like myself.

WB: That’s something we’re trying to avoid with Sugar. We’re trying to keep things relatively simple. But there are two schools of thought. One is that the world is complex and we should make tools to reduce the complexity and bring everything within the reach of people. That is called human-centric design. The other school says that the world is complex and we want people to reach for that complexity, because that is the interesting stuff. That is called learning-centric design. Sugar is about learning-centric design. We have simple tools, but we want people to use those tools to reach for more complexity. It’s like when you’re buying wine. You’re looking for wine that has complexity.

X: Let’s talk about the changes at the One Laptop foundation, which laid off half its staff in January. How has that affected the Sugar project?

WB: It directly affects the Sugar project in the sense that the two people at OLPC who were being paid to work on Sugar aren’t being paid anymore. But those people are still working on Sugar as part of the volunteer community, which is how the rest of us are also working. Since the OLPC announcement, there has actually been more Sugar activity than before. The Fedora community, for example, has really risen to the occasion, saying they are still interested in this and that they’re going to support it and bring a lot more resources to the table. The Debian and Ubuntu communities have said the same. [Fedora, Debian, and Ubuntu are all variants of the Linux operating system.–Ed.] In some sense, I think a lot of people were holding back because of the perception of an exclusive relationship between Sugar and OLPC, and as much as I like the OLPC mission, the OLPC laptop is not the only game in town. I think a lot of people have actually come forward now because they see a cleaner separation between the two organizations.

X: Will the XO laptop continue to ship with Sugar on it, for the foreseeable future?

WB: Right now, I don’t think there’s any other choice. You can run other Linux distributions on the XO laptop, and have a traditional desktop instead of Sugar, and that’s attractive to some of the people who are using the XO hardware for things other than learning. But again, every single OLPC deployment to date is a Sugar deployment, and we are certainly very interested in keeping those deployments and making them successful.

X: Are you or were you getting any financial support from OLPC in return for supplying the operating environment for the laptops?

WB: No. What we’ve gotten from OLPC over the last year since Sugar spun out is some in-kind engineering help—those two people who were paid to work on Sugar. That in-kind engineering support is ending. But it will come from other places, I hope. And I’m hoping that OLPC will continue to be able to support Sugar from the perspective of deployment. Their new focus is on deployment, and I think that’s a wonderful thing for them to be doing. Sugar Labs itself is not doing deployment—that’s happening through partnerships like the one with OLPC. So there is a lot of mutual benefit associated with their deploying Sugar. And in fact, I’m going from here over to OLPC, because I’ve got a number of questions about how we can make sure that the new March Sugar release is on track with the next round of OLPC deployments.

X: Can Sugar Labs survive and thrive without sponsorship from an organization with a real budget, like OLPC? Can it keep going forever as a self-sustaining volunteer community, like the other Linux sub-communities?

WB: In the long term, I thing Sugar has to remain a community project. There will occasionally be people who are hired to work on certain things because they’re of interest to a particular company. A particular device manufacturer might decide they want to do a big Sugar push, and they might hire some engineers to make sure that Sugar is really fine-tuned for their platform. But as a whole, Sugar Labs itself is going to remain essentially a volunteer organization. Right now we are operating on a budget of zero, and we have for almost a year. While I would love to raise some money—and I have a big stack of grant rejections—we’re going to keep going without it. And the money that I’m trying to raise is not for software development. It’s for enhancing the community—for finding more face-to-face time so that people can exchange ideas. That’s not lots of money, and I’ll find the right way to raise it. I have to admit that rather than spending as much time on fundraising as I should have, I’ve been spending more time on code, because it’s a lot more fun. But I’m going to start to be a lot more disciplined.

Also, we called it Sugar Labs, plural, purposely. The idea is that there will be local, regional Sugar Labs springing up around the world, and a lot of those efforts are beginning to get some traction, although none of them are officially off the ground yet. There are two or three Sugar Labs that are in the works in South America, and there are a couple of efforts to get Sugar Labs off the ground in Europe and Asia. The idea is that those regional Sugar Labs could very well be for-profit, and could be hiring people, while the central Sugar Labs builds consensus around goals and maintains some basic infrastructure. The local Sugar Labs would be determining how they can best use Sugar with local communities, and they’d be much more deployment-focused.

X: Nicholas Negroponte and others at OLPC have talked about a dual-screen, touch-based, keyboardless device as model for the second-generation XO. Would Sugar work on the “XO 2.0,” or would it have to be significantly rewritten?

WB: I don’t really know anything about it. I know nothing about what the user-interaction paradigm is going to be. I do know that … 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….