Sugar Gets Sweeter: Former OLPC Exec Walter Bender on Netbooks, E-books, Blueberry, and Cloudberry

Every so often, we like to check in with Walter Bender, the former president of software and content for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation. He’s always busy with something interesting—and lately, it’s been Sugar, the classroom-oriented software environment that he and a team of software engineers originally developed for the OLPC’s $200 XO Laptop. Bender left the OLPC Foundation in 2008 to start Sugar Labs, a Brookline, MA-based non-profit organization that continues to make improvements to Sugar.

The most recent, which Bender told us about back in February, is Sugar on a Stick, a version of Sugar that fits on a USB key. Insert Sugar on a Stick into the USB slot of your Windows, Mac, or Linux computer, and you can start up the computer in Sugar instead of the native operating system. The implications are exciting: for the first time, any classroom or consumer with a computer can try all of the educational software built into Sugar without having to obtain an XO.

Last week, Sugar Labs announced the debut of Blueberry, the second major release of Sugar on a Stick. I caught up with Bender just after he’d returned from the Netbook World Summit in Paris, where he says many netbook manufacturers expressed interest in putting Sugar on their devices. I asked him, among other things, for his views on the future of the netbook category, where Sugar fits in, and how Blueberry changes the picture.

I was particularly intrigued by two points Bender made. First, he says Blueberry includes a vastly improved e-book reader that makes any computer running Sugar into “a pretty darn good e-book reader” (his words), with built-in access to the hundreds of thousands of free books available from the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg, as well as cool tools for shared book annotation. The implications for schools are obvious.

Second, Bender hinted that the next release of Sugar on a Stick after Blueberry, code named “Cloudberry,” will take Sugar in some very interesting new directions, bringing capabilities like cloud-based storage to Sugar users. That ought to make it easier for teachers and students to share documents and applications, for one thing. Click through to the end of the interview for the details.

Here’s the full record of our talk.

Xconomy: You just got back from Paris. What were you up to there?

Walter Bender: I was giving the keynote at the Netbook World Summit. This is the second year they’ve had it in Paris, hosted by Mandriva [maker of a popular version of Linux]. It was a small group of about 200 people, but the right people. A lot of people were there from the various manufacturers, talking about different approaches to netbook software. There was somebody from Google talking about Chrome OS, and somebody from Samsung. I also gave the keynote last year, and I talked then about the difference between computer culture and phone culture, and about how computer culture was going to give the netbook guys an edge. What happened was, I was 100 percent wrong, because Apple and Google wrested the phone away from the wireless operators and the netbook industry just started emulating the status quo. Netbooks today all look the same, and all do the same thing, and the innovation is really happening on smartphones.

So I challenged the netbook community to wrestle back their innovative lead, and to frame it in terms of what you can do with a netbook that you can’t do with a phone. At some level, they are all just computers. But a netbook has a bigger screen, it has a keyboard, and there is a certain level of expression and creativity that those affordances give you that you are going to be hard pressed to do on a phone. A lot of people shoot video on a phone, but not many edit video on a phone. On phones, a lot of people type text messages, but … 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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