Page last updated at 19:01 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 20:01 UK

OLPC software to power ageing PCs

By Jonathan Fildes
Technology reporter, BBC News

XO laptop and Intel Classmate both running Sugar
Sugar runs on the XO and rival Intel Classmate PC

Software originally developed for the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project can now be used on any old PC.

Sugar on a stick, as it is known, can be run from a USB drive to give ageing PCs a new interface and access to collaborative educational software.

The software, designed for use by children, was launched at the LinuxTag conference in Berlin.

It has been developed by Sugar Labs, a breakaway organisation from OLPC.

"[Sugar on a stick] is a great new opportunity to breathe new life into these old machines," Walter Bender, founder of Sugar Labs, told BBC News.

The release could dramatically increase the use of the free software, which has until now been predominantly distributed with the XO laptop, the machine sold be OLPC.

The child-friendly computers, originally marketed as the $100 (£60) laptop, currently cost $199 (£120) each. Sugar on a stick, however, can be used on any machine.

"It runs on Asus, Dell, HP - it runs on anything," said Mr Bender. "It even runs on phones."

It has already been shown working on an Intel Classmate PC, one of the main rivals to the OLPC machines.

Sweet release

Mr Bender was formerly second in command at OLPC. He left in April 2008 after it was announced that the low-cost laptops would be offering Microsoft Windows software.

Sugar on a stick
The software can be run from a 1GB USB stick

"I didn't leave OLPC because of the Microsoft deal - it was a symptom rather than the cause," he told BBC News at the time.

"I left OLPC because I think the most important thing it is doing is defining a learning ecosystem."

Mr Bender went on to found Sugar Labs, an independent effort to develop the software and interface used on the OLPC machines.

The interface emphasises collaborative learning, allowing children to share material between different machines. For example, they can write documents or make music together.

The open source software also contains a journal and automatically saves and backs up all data.

It has been used by more than one million children on the XO laptop and has also been released as part of other operating systems. For example, it was bundled with releases of the Ubuntu and Fedora Linux systems.

The latest release - Sugar on a Stick - allows anyone to run the software from a 1GB USB stick. It includes 40 programs, including a word processor, drawing application and games.

Mr Bender said the ability to transport the software and plug it into any computer would allow children to have a "consistent experience" wherever they worked.

"No matter what computer you have at home or at the library you're going to have the same use experience because you have sugar on a stick," he said.

The software can be downloaded for free from the Sugar Labs website.

It can be run on Linux machines, as well as Macs and Windows PCs. Recent Mac users and older Windows machines must use an additional "helper CD" to allow the computer to boot-up from the USB stick.

The software will also be used to power newer versions of the XO laptop, shipped in the autumn. However, the new machines will not use Sugar as the primary interface.

Instead, they will have a traditional desktop and allow children to run Sugar as a separate application.

"Our current belief is that Sugar should have always been on a stick," an OLPC spokesperson told BBC News. "In our case it should have been an application on top of a native Linux.

"We have been working on decoupling Sugar from our hardware since [Mr Bender] left."

Mr Bender said that the statement from OLPC was based on a misunderstanding by Nicholas Negroponte - head of OLPC - about how Sugar worked.

"What I think he meant was that Sugar should co-exist with traditional desktops," he told BBC News.

"Sugar always has and still does and will continue to do be able to co-exist with traditional desktops. He just never quite understood that."

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