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1/27/2009
11:02 AM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Criticizing The OLPC (And Its Critics)

Jon Evans of The Walrus didn't like the OLPC. He thought it was the wrong tool for the job -- badly engineered, improperly envisioned, and more hype than substance. The OLPC folks didn't take that criticism lying down, but their

Jon Evans of The Walrus didn't like the OLPC. He thought it was the wrong tool for the job -- badly engineered, improperly envisioned, and more hype than substance. The OLPC folks didn't take that criticism lying down, but their response is in many ways just as narrow-minded as some of Jon's criticisms.

Jon was disturbed at how the XO was so unlike his Acer Aspire One, or any number of other commodity-computing netbooks (many of which, it has to be said, were inspired by the XO's original premise). He hated the Sugar platform; hated the keyboard; hated how Web pages didn't seem to render correctly in the XO's browser. "A collection of badly executed good ideas," was how he put it, in sum, and he's not the only one who thinks the OLPC Project has missed it mark.

Whatever you might think about Jon's criticisms -- good, bad, misinformed -- I don't believe for a second they deserved the kind of response that appeared on the OLPC News blog (which is, as I've since learned, not affiliated with the OLPC project). When he groused about the Wikipedia issue and the fact that encrypted Wi-Fi connections didn't work right, they wrote: "Apparently for Jon, the computing key to revolutionize education is to connect to encrypted Wi-Fi networks so children can read properly formatted Wikipedia entries."

The rest of the article's tone is only marginally better, and while there are some legitimate points -- e.g., cell phones are not a substitute for notebook computers -- the tone is a massive turnoff. Instead of listening to someone who might have had something to tell them, however bitter a pill it might have been to swallow, they snarked right back and called him "unqualified" to comment on how to deliver educational technology to children in developing nations.

It's an echo of the same kinds of defensive guff I hear fired off in other corners of the open source world: "Obviously, the problem is you." No, the problem is that even badly worded criticism can be useful, and you need to not be so thin-skinned as to not hear any of it when it comes your way.

If, for instance, the Mozilla team was in the middle of prepping Firefox 4, and someone wrote a scathing review of the beta -- do you think the Moz people would respond by merely being snotty and dismissive? I'd like to think not; they have a better sense of how to engage their audience and critics than that. It's a skill worth learning no matter what your business.

(And if they have ever been like that, I'd love to know. It would make a great addendum.)

[Addendum: The other blog in question is in fact not affiliated with the OLPC project, and I've amended this post to reflect that. I still think my notes about the tone of both the original criticism and the countercharge apply, however.]


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