OLPC Is A Cathedral But OLPC Tech Is Fleeing Into The Bazaar

from the top-down-or-bottom-up dept

From the outset, one of the oddities of the One Laptop Per Child project has been the tension between its organizational philosophy and its software platform. In his famous essay, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," Eric Raymond contrasted two organizational philosophies for developing software. In the Cathedral, software projects are organized in a top-down fashion, with the development process following a plan carefully developed by the project's leaders. In contrast, the philosophy of the Bazaar is to "release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity." The OLPC project was a strange beast because it was clearly organized on the "Cathedral" model, yet it was developed around Linux, the open source project that Raymond used as the poster child for the "Bazaar" style of development. And its broader vision of empowering third-world kids to use the laptops without a lot of central support, is clearly more Bazaar than Cathedral.

I think many of the problems we've noted with the project stemmed from this fundamental conflict of visions. Nicholas Negroponte's vision for the OLPC organization has always been the model of the Cathedral: produce a perfect laptop on the first try and sell it in batches of a hundred thousand to the world's governments. Negroponte's plan left little room for the kind of development growth, bottom-up participation, and trial-and error that characterizes the Bazaar. Indeed, even when customers were beating down the door to try out Negroponte's product, he resisted selling it to them because it conflicted with his vision. And of course, he absolutely hated the idea of his customers having other options to choose from.

This tension was never sustainable, and indeed there are increasing signs that OLPC's innovative technologies are being steadily liberated from the Cathedral. In January, we noted that one OLPC alum was starting a new firm to commercialize the OLPC's display technology. Now CNet notes that another OLPC alum, Walter Bender, is starting a new software spinoff to license OLPC technology to a variety of laptop manufacturers. Bender's decision to start a new company was presumably sparked by Negroponte's decision to run OLPC more like Microsoft, which one engineer claims involved demoting Bender in favor of someone with less technical expertise.

It seems that the folks who have left OLPC have a more Bazaar-like vision for their companies, licensing their technologies to a variety of companies. In contrast, Negroponte seems to be doubling down on the "Cathedral" model. He's reportedly considering a switch from Linux to Windows. That would be oddly appropriate given the apparent similarities between Negroponte's management philosophy and Steve Ballmer's.


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  1. identicon
    Tim Lee, 30 May 2008 @ 4:29am

    Re: Hardware is not software

    Well sure, you want a usable product on the first run, but planning on a seven-figure production run on the first try isn't necessarily a good strategy.

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