Forget the OLPC: Here's a 30-children-per-desktop solution

Consider the similarity between Angelina Jolie and the One Laptop Per Child project.

Like the OLPC, eMachines bets that high volume could make up for its razor-thin margins. That worked for a while, as eMachines briefly became the third-largest seller of PCs in US stores. But reliability complaints and a slow post-dot-com economy wrecked that model, and Dukker was long gone by the time eMachines was sold to Gateway in 2004.

"I hear Negroponte say the issue is volume," Dukker said. "Well, as someone who has personally built 15-20 million PCs, I can tell you that if you add up the components [in a laptop], it is always going to be about US$250-US$300 in hard costs."

Building a healthier ecosystem

Tiring of what he now calls a "really sick industry," Dukker joined NComputing in 2006. The firm was co-founded by a former eMachines colleague who had developed a powerful, cheap video chip. Such chips had traditionally been used to connect several monitors to a PC to enhance user productivity.

But by adding ports for mice and keyboards, as well as installing some NComputing-written management software, NComputing suddenly had a device that could take advantage of all the unused processing power in a desktop PC and divvy it up among as many as 30 users.

Best of all, the NComputing device can be manufactured for just US$11 for its X300 model, which can support up to seven users, and US$35 for the L200 model that can support up to 30 users.

That allows NComputing to mark up its devices by several orders of magnitude and still keep prices low while offering generous margins to distributors and resellers -- far better than the margins they get from selling PCs.

That helped attract Sean Owen-Jones, managing director of NCSolutions & Distribution, a South African reseller.

"I discovered the NComputing product and knew that this technology would be a winner for the African market," Owen-Jones said.

In the last year, his company has sold about 2,500 seats' worth of the NComputing devices. Virtually all have gone into schools, including several in South Africa's poor Western Cape region.

Owen-Jones said that although the OLPC is a "very cool idea," it is also an "unsustainable solution" in Africa. Laptops are too easily stolen, fragile and hard to maintain, he said.

"It's the same old concept of engineers sitting in a secluded environment designing a product without having experienced life on the outside of their intentions," he said.

Thin, teacher-friendly clients

In reality, NComputing's PC-sharing box is simply a kind of thin client or PC blade device. But Dukker studiously avoids using those terms. To him, they evoke expensive, hard-to-manage devices that vendors such as Wyse Technology, ClearCube, as well as Hewlett-Packard and IBM sell, and which only corporations buy.

By contrast, NComputing's devices are meant to be cheap enough for cash-strapped schools, and easy enough to troubleshoot that any teacher reasonably competent with Windows (or Linux) can manage them.

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