As educators worldwide await the release of Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop and technology luminaries such as Bill Gates and others continue to predict a future dominated by affordable technologies destined to change the face of learning, a fledgling tech company says it has created a solution capable of delivering the benefits of a fully functional PC to every student–today.
The kicker: They can do it for less than $100 a student, says Stephen Dukker, chairman and CEO of nComputing, which manufactures a suite of products that promise to turn a single computer or server into an interconnected network of as many as 30 machines.
Rather than provide students with their own CPU, the technology operates similar to a thin-client solution, enabling users to do everything from create standard word-processing documents and spreadsheets to watch streaming video and use complex multimedia–all reportedly without compromising the speed and functionality of the other machines connected to the network.
So far, Dukker says, response from the education community to the product has been overwhelming. Though the product line wasn’t officially launched until Sept. 25, he noted, the company already has shipped some 12,000 units to U.S. schools, with more than 100,000 going to customers in developing nations.
In a meeting with eSchool Newseditors in September, Dukker demonstrated how the company’s NStation product works by connecting to a host computer and feeding off an existing CPU.
Resembling a standard memory card, the device can be installed inside an existing machine, where it branches out via standard Ethernet cables to a network of satellite keyboards and monitors, fueling the computing needs of up to seven users from the processing power of a single machine. If customers prefer not to load the cards inside existing CPUs (each card supports up to three users), nComputing also provides a version of the same card that comes housed in its own stand-alone box. Additional users then connect to the satellite box, which is linked to the host machine or server.
Unlike Negroponte’s prototype device, which contains its own processor and operates as a scaled-down version of a traditional laptop computer, nComputing’s device isn’t a computer at all, explains Dukker.
Not unlike the human brain, Dukker says, most personal computers use only a very small portion of their overall processing power when in use.
Rather than up production costs by purchasing expensive processors from leading chip makers such as Intel and AMD, he said, the company found it could drastically reduce its costs to users by designing a device that simply borrowed its processing power from existing PCs. The finished product has no operating system, runs zero software applications, and uses about as much energy as a household light bulb; but, when paired with a another machine, Dukker says, it provides users with a near-seamless computing experience, limited only by the output of its host.
The idea, he explains, is to give users a product that allows them to take full advantage of the computing power they’ve already purchased.
“In the IT business, everything is driven by cost,” says Dukker, who before joining nComputing was founder and CEO of eMachines, a low-cost computer manufacturer recently acquired by Gateway.
Where the bar for affordable, one-to-one computing in schools was set by Negroponte’s $100 prototype, Dukker says his company is capable of driving those costs down to as low as $70 a seat, a figure he believes will fall even further as production costs for materials drop.
In the case of Negroponte’s solution, Dukker said, “it really all goes back to that old problem of trying to stuff 10 pounds of parts into a five-pound bag.”
While the $100 laptop could very well spark an education revolution in some third-world nations, Dukker says, educators in economically advanced countries, including the U.S., likely won’t be satisfied with their ability to perform only basic tasks such as word processing and eMail.
Apart from completing simple tasks, Dukker demonstrated how nComputing’s product–when connected to a host computer–could perform more intensive, multimedia-type functions such as streaming internet video, while still maintaining near-seamless integration and image quality.
The company also has developed a web-based interface designed to help educators and others better manage and communicate with networked users. Loaded onto the host computer, NControl software enables educators to view and manipulate the screens of their students, creating an environment that is both interactive and controlled. The software reportedly works not only in single-classroom environments, but also across entire networks, wherever networked users are located.
Compatible with host machines running Windows or Linux-based operating systems, the NStation terminal boxes boast additional USB and serial ports, enabling students to save their information to a portable device they can then take with them as they move through the building. Because the terminals borrow their power from a single source, users eventually might run into problems when trying to run processor-heavy applications, such as the latest computer games. But most of the applications used in a typical education environment should run unencumbered, Dukker said.
While the $70-a-seat price quoted by Dukker is already being realized in certain districts, some circumstances could drive the cost to schools higher.
Where schools use Windows-based machines, for example, district administrators will want to check with Microsoft to ensure that the terminals can legally serve multiple users off a single licensing agreement. Though this is a non-issue with Linux-based machines, schools running on a Microsoft platform need to be conscious of the possibility of random software audits and pricing concerns that stand to drive the price of the deployment higher.
nComputing says its products are intended to reduce hardware deployment and maintenance costs, and it does not provide specific guidance to schools with regard to licensing–but the company encourages schools to check with their software vendors. Total cost of ownership, or TCO, is another issue the company believes its product should enable schools to improve upon.
“One of the attributes that our customers absolutely love is that these devices are never obsolete,” said Dukker. Because each terminal is powered by a host, schools need only upgrade their host machines, or servers, in order to refresh their network. The result is that technicians can spend less time performing routine maintenance and concentrate more on improving other network efficiencies, he said.
Depending on what customers are looking for, however, the product does have some drawbacks. For one, unlike Negroponte’s device–which is wireless and can be used in classrooms that don’t have sufficient electrical power–nComputing’s solution is hard-wired and requires a viable power source.
And though the company estimates it can provide a full computing experience at less than $70 a seat, in many cases, the cost of monitors and other add-ons likely will drive the final price for schools even higher.
Still, Dukker likes his chances. While the product only recently became available to U.S. schools, he said, it has history of success in the international community. In 2005, at a conference in Hanover, Germany, the company won a CeBIT award for best server-based application. And last December, the World Trade Organization tapped nComputing to provide Pentium 4-style computing power to all of its participants at an annual meeting in Hong Kong.
In Mexico, one customer reportedly used the technology to create a portable internet café in the back of a truck. In China, the mayor of one rural village set up a shared internet connection for other members of his community. And in Thailand, educators at schools and universities are experimenting with the product.
Rather than wait years to get Negroponte’s device, which will be deployed in advance to developing nations before being made available to schools in the United States, or hang around until Gates finally settles on a prototype that suits his tastes, a number of U.S. school already have decided to give nComputing a shot.
One of those school systems–the Rocky Mountain Board of Education in Colorado–decided after testing the product for one month to order $50,000 worth of devices to be installed and deployed throughout the district. The same can be said for Joint School District #215 in Idaho.
“It gets viral,” said Dukker, talking about how word-of-mouth has generated sales in rural districts throughout the Midwest.