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Startup’s PC-sharing tech could rival more celebrated efforts to bring low-cost computing to disadvantaged students

When the government minister for technology in Macedonia, one of Europe’s poorest countries, decided to jolt the nation’s educational system by outfitting schools with new computers, he had a surprising array of blue-chip choices.

After all, between a soon-to-be-released laptop dreamed up by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, the “Classmate PC” from Intel Corp. and other inexpensive options, low-cost computing for international schoolchildren is now one of technology’s hottest concepts.

Yet when Macedonia sealed its 44 million euro ($61 million) computing venture, the government went with a tech provider whose own CEO acknowledges “nobody’s heard of us.”

That vendor is a Silicon Valley startup called NComputing Inc., and the reasons it won the Macedonian contract and deals in several U.S. schools could make the company a force in education and other big computer markets.

NComputing’s technology lets organizations take one PC and parcel its computing power out to “thin clients” used by multiple people. The concept is old, but the march of progress in computing could be making it feasible on a wider scale. Even today’s lower-rung PCs are loaded with processing power and memory that largely sit unused except in extreme kinds of programs.

NComputing users plug a keyboard, mouse and monitor into a little box that maintains a connection to one hub PC or server. Wires are necessary for now, but soon wireless links will be possible.

Software in the NComputing boxes gives each of the users an individual computing session with different desktop appearances and different programs even though all of them are sharing the central processor and hard drive in the hub PC.

Depending on the configuration, NComputing’s boxes can split one PC up to 10 ways. One server can be divvied up into separate 30 workstations.

As a result, NComputing says each workstation can cost as little as $150 to $175, including installation, technical support and the requisite hardware.

In comparison, the far more celebrated laptops from the nonprofit MIT spinoff One Laptop Per Child are now expected to cost around $190, while Intel’s portable Classmate PC is about $225. Those prices don’t include service costs that might arise.

To be sure, this is not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison. The vision of the One Laptop Per Child program is more comprehensive: Its innovative laptops, which can be hand-powered, are designed for students to use at home as well. The project’s organizers are adamant that when children can keep and tinker with the laptops, they will experience profound improvements in critical thinking and problem solving.

In fact, Walter Bender, One Laptop Per Child’s director of software and content, derides the traditional model, in which children get to use PCs only in computer labs for a few hours a day, as “antiquated” and “ineffectual.”

“It’s such a backward way of actually educating people in computing,” Bender said. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s not going to touch the families, it’s not going to be used as engine for entrepreneurship, creativity, exploration. … Maybe it’s economical from the dollars and cents perspective, but not from the learning perspective.”

But for Ivo Ivanovski, Macedonia’s minister of information society, such high-minded ideals are unrealistic in a country where educational resources are stretched so thin that half the children go to school in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.

By installing 20,000 new PCs from China’s Haier Co. and 160,000 PC-sharing boxes from NComputing, Ivanovski expects to ensure that all 420,000 Macedonian K-12 students can use computers at school for some time to come.

In contrast, meeting One Laptop Per Child’s mission would entail purchasing computers now and more each year as new students enter the system, he noted.

“It’s better if you have unlimited resources of the government,” said Ivanovski, who plans to further reduce the project’s costs by running Linux and open-source office software instead of Microsoft Corp.’s proprietary systems, which can also be used on NComputing’s platform. “We as a developing, poor country don’t have that kind of money. We’re thinking of buying once and then not doing anything.”

It’s unclear how widely Ivanovski’s objections are held in other developing countries that One Laptop Per Child hopes to reach. Other countries also have kicked the tires only to opt out, including India.

Mass production of the nonprofit’s machines is due to begin this fall, but precisely which nations are first in line to buy the machines has not been disclosed. Brazil, Libya, Thailand and Nigeria which have considerably more resources than Macedonia have been among those showing interest. At least 10 other nations have been staging pilot tests.

If NComputing manages to grab some business from One Laptop Per Child, it seems that will provide some satisfaction to NComputing’s CEO, Stephen Dukker. He is an industry veteran who co-founded eMachines Inc., a discount PC maker that eventually was sold to Gateway Inc.

“It’s not up to us to tell educators how to educate,” Dukker said.

In just over a year, NComputing’s technology has made its way into many U.S. organizations, including 200,000 workstations in American schools, largely on word of mouth.

That was the case in Baltimore public schools, where Bert Ross, manager of the teacher support system, heard about NComputing through a colleague. Baltimore schools have lots of old PCs that don’t work but plenty of surplus keyboards and monitors that work fine. NComputing’s technology allowed Ross to take that gear out closets and put it back in service, turning 200 PCs into 800 workstations in an initial test. Now, with a $40,000 grant, he plans to do the same to obtain another 800 seats.

He says students notice no degradation of their computing tasks, even when all four NComputing terminals sharing one PC are deep in some activity.

“We really are excited by it,” Ross said. “We’re always looking for ways to stretch our dollars.”

On the Net:

NComputing Inc.:

One Laptop Per Child:

– Associated Press

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