Get ready for the $40 school computer.

One way or another, the idea of ubiquitous, low-cost computer access for schoolchildren, both in the United States and abroad, is fast approaching the point where goals turn into realities. Major technology players, including several large companies and a nonprofit group that is focusing on developing countries, have been working in different ways to advance the cause.

Things are moving along so quickly, in fact, that Stephen Dukker, chairman and CEO of the small, California-based company NComputing, predicts that by 2009 many schools will be able to provide their students with portable, online capabilities for as little as $100 each–and perhaps as little as $30 or $40 per user for non-mobile devices. Wireless capacity, says Dukker, should be a relatively inexpensive bonus by then.

NComputing has just broken new ground with an announcement that the Republic of Macedonia will become the first nation in the world to provide computer workstations for every elementary and secondary school student. Macedonia’s Ministry of Education and Science selected NComputing over four other bidders and will use the company’s “multi-user virtual desktop software,” along with inexpensive terminals, to provide computing for some 400,000 students, most of whom attend school in half-day sessions.

The first 770 student “seats” were installed in three of Macadonia’s high schools in August, with about 100,000 more scheduled to be deployed by the end of this year and another 80,000 expected to be ready by the end of 2008.

Dukker says the total cost of the package comes to $220 per seat, including all hardware, transportation, setup, maintenance, and peripherals such as keyboards and speakers. The software-terminal part alone, he says, is the equivalent of a $70 PC.

The basic idea behind NComputing’s approach is that, instead of selling separate desktops or laptop computers, it produces specially designed memory cards and terminals that take advantage of a single computer’s unused processing capacity to enable up to seven users to work either online or offline at the same time.

Noting that the technique so far has been implemented mainly by big corporations–but at prices well beyond what schools typically can afford–Dukker says its greatest future payoff is likely to be in education. He says he expects it to take hold increasingly in the United States over the next few years.

“We envision a world,” says Dukker, who founded the low-cost PC maker eMachines in the late 1990s, “in which every person and organization that wants 1-to-1 access to a PC can finally afford it.” The key will be a widespread “shift to multi-user PC computing,” he says, adding that he expects eventual collaboration among various producers of computer technologies.

NComputing’s project with Macedonia, which the government there calls its “Computer for Every Child” initiative, comes at a time when the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is reportedly close to implementing plans for distributing inexpensive laptops for children in developing nations.

According to an OLPC spokesperson, the group has developed active or imminent pilot projects involving its portable devices with at least a half-dozen countries in South American and Africa, as well as in other parts of the world.

Mass production is now scheduled to get under way in November, the spokesperson said, and initial pricing is expected to be about $188 per unit, slightly higher than previously reported. Ultimately, says Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC’s founder and former director of the MIT Media Laboratory, the organization hopes to lower the unit price to less than $100.

The OLPC device currently includes a relatively slow processor manufactured by Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), a major OLPC partner. But AMD’s main chip-making rival, Intel, has been widely reported in recent days to be seeking an arrangement to put its own chips in the OLPC device, which is known as the XO computer. This past summer, after previously criticizing OLPC’s efforts, Intel had an apparent change of heart and agreed to join the OLPC board and contribute funds to the project.

Although the development of sub-$100 computer access for schoolchildren is still more prototype than practice in most places, its prospects seem increasingly promising. Not only are children in poor countries around the world destined to benefit, but so are a growing number of American children whose school districts so far have been unable to finance the notion of computing for all students.

After recent reports that Intel had grown eager to get its computer chips into OLPC devices, an IT administrator and teacher of math and physics at Athol High School in Massachusetts, Christopher Dawson, reflected on the situation in a post published by ZDnet.com.

The competition for related chip development “certainly bodes well … both domestically and abroad,” Dawson wrote. “With attention turning away from simply ramping up clock speed to reducing power consumption and increasing mobility at very low costs, even kids in the [United States] should feel the ripple effect.”

Links:

NComputing

One Laptop Per Child

Intel Education Initiative

Advanced Micro Devices and OLPC