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
    Michael C. Neel, 28 May 2008 @ 6:16pm

    New names...

    We call them "Waterfall" and "Agile" now ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    ChronoFish, 28 May 2008 @ 6:22pm

    Not that bizzare

    In the last 13 years of my software development career this is how I see it done regularly.

    Why? Because software tools (OS, compilers, editors, the web, search engines, databases, languages, platforms, etc, etc, etc) grow organically and are thought of as "services". Developers use these tools to create their product (which may or may not be a service itself)

    When I was ARINC we create Air-Traffic control system selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars - all developed on a Linux platform and utilized OS like there was no tomorrow. But you better believe that WE drove OUR development from the top down.

    When I was at the Secretary of State's office (Rhode Island) our department lead the way in bringing OS to the forefront of state technologies. We may have released "early and often" but it was certainly dictated by a few people.

    Same at a recent startup I worked for - a true point and click web business that has a home-grown web-application that drives the business. Lots of Linux, PHP, Postgres, and yeah - released early and often, but dictated by a few.

    "Services" are released early and often. OS is community based, and OTS products follow the Cathedral perridigm.

    How those service and products are created is really irrelevant to the business model. I'm not sure how you could even consider a laptop as a service. Sure Opensource the hardware is one way, but that's not going to be rapid development.

    Something like the OLPC movement really couldn't wait for evolution to bring it about. It had to moved into production quickly otherwise it would have been just another ulta-portable with funky green antennas. The way it happened, it left its mark, it forced the industry to produce something early than it was going to produce anyway (see latest gathering of ultra portable laptops and web devices)

    Sure it's nice to think that something like the OLPC is an altruistic endeavor, but get real. It was from the get-go a scheme to make the brain-parent a lot of money. The fact that kids in impoverished nations get to play with technology is simply a side-effect, albeit a nice one.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    comboman, 28 May 2008 @ 7:51pm

    Hardware is not software

    Of course there are different design philosophies for designing hardware than there are for software. Software can "release early and often" because releasing just requires pressing the compile button. Releasing a hardware revision is extremely expensive and time-consuming, so getting it right on the "first try" (other than prototypes) is always the correct design goal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Sean, 29 May 2008 @ 8:15am

    I think he made the mistake of not allowing others to buy it. They should have sold it at an inflated price stamped with a logo to advertise and show that this version is not to be sold as "The OLPC". Then created a place for those who purchased it to report problems and upload OS changes with a description.

    That way they would make some money to help fund production and research and cut time and expenses by having others do real world testing. Why pay testers when they are begging to pay you to do it them selves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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