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

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make that transition. That’s important because with a lot of schools, our strategy is to say “Try it, you’ll like it, and you might want to make Sugar native in your classroom or lab.”

The other thing, that’s more of a Sugar thing but it’s in Blueberry, is that we’ve really done a lot of work on our whole e-book offering. We’ve tried to make sure that we have the right set of tools so that you can turn any computer into a pretty darn good e-book reader. It’s great if you can afford to buy a Kindle. But there are some things we do with the e-book reader in Sugar that are in keeping with the whole Sugar philosophy. We’ve added support for the EPUB format, and we’ve refined our support for a bunch of other formats. We’ve built in some library utilities that allow you to access the Internet Archive books and the Project Gutenberg books directly. Then we have a bunch of utilities, like annotating your e-books as you’re reading and sharing the annotations with other people, that are in line with our pedagogical goals with Sugar.

X: There’s always been an e-book activity in Sugar, hasn’t there?

WB: Yes, we’ve always had an e-book in Sugar, but it was never really more than a placeholder. We basically put a wrapper around a technology called Evince, a PDF viewer, and we didn’t do much with it until Blueberry, when we really had an all-out push. The other thing we have done is to put a text-to-speech engine into the reader so that kids can have books read to them.

We also continue to put an emphasis on the notion of writing to read—that one way you learn to read is by writing and having some incentive to read because you’re communicating with other people. So we’ve been trying to expose some pretty neat tools for making multimedia books that were always built into Sugar but were buried or hidden. There is a technology in Sugar called E-toys that was originally done by Alan Kay and his team, and it’s got built into it a very nice multimedia document system. There is a teacher in New York who has been doing a lot of work having kids using E-toys to make documents for a science class. It’s a really rich environment for doing science—it’s the whole idea of a lab notebook and communicating what you’re doing and engaging in critical dialogue.

X: Brewster Kahle from the Internet Archive announced at the Boston Book Festival in October that the archive is making a million of the books they’ve scanned available for kids with XO Laptops. Was this new e-book software in Blueberry intended to take advantage of that?

WB: We’re trying to take advantage of Brewster’s work, certainly, but there are other archives of books that we’re also trying to take advantage of. We’ve been working with Project Gutenberg from the beginning.

X: Microsoft announced this week that it’s releasing its Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool, which was originally designed to allow netbook users to create a bootable USB drive or DVD that they could then use to install Windows 7, under the General Public License. What does that mean for Sugar?

WB: It’s good news for us because it means more manufacturers are going to take into account that people want to boot off the USB. The hardest thing about running Sugar on a Stick is wrestling with your system’s BIOS to get it to boot of the USB. You can change the boot order, but that’s a hairy, scary thing for most people. Everybody is going to start making that a lot easier, because they’ll want to accommodate the Microsoft tool.

X: I wanted to ask you about something Nicholas Negroponte at the One Laptop Per Child Foundation told us in our most recent interview with him. We asked him to talk about the advantages of separating the development of Sugar from the development of the XO. His answer was, “Sugar Labs has taken over Sugar and is doing what we should have done in the first place, making it an application not an operating system.” Do you understand what he meant by that?

WB: I never really quite understood that quote. Sugar is a desktop environment. It’s not an operating system. It sits on top of a number of different Linux operating systems, such as Fedora or Ubuntu or Debian or Mandriva. That was always the case. I think maybe what Nicholas was trying to say was that when you are going to make hardware, you have to … 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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