As school leaders look for inexpensive ways to extend computing resources to every student, a Canadian company says it is giving away software that turns one computer workstation into two.

Userful, a privately held company based in Alberta, makes software that allows a user to connect an extra monitor, USB keyboard, and mouse to a standard computer box, making it possible for two users to work on the same PC at the same time.

Userful’s software giveaway now makes it possible for a user to get this software for free. The free two-user licenses, which originally started as a Christmas promotion, allow computer users with an extra video card (or a dual-head video card) to add an extra workstation. The company offers two free downloads: one that allows the user to turn his or her PC into two independent workstations without affecting any of the software on the hard disk, and one for users already running Linux.

"The free two-user giveaway doubles the utility and value of your existing computer with minimal cost," says Tim Griffin, Userful’s president. "In fact, if you already have an extra monitor and keyboard, it’s like getting a free computer."

Userful is giving away two-user licenses to its software to show how much untapped value lies hidden in today’s desktop PCs. Explains Griffin, "Maintaining an extra PC is a lot of work, and not everyone can afford a second home PC. … We had such a warm response to our holiday giveaway that we decided to continue giving away our software."

The move also has improved sales, said Sean Rousseau, marketing and public relations director for Userful.

"We started giving away this software hoping that people would see how well [it] works at home and recommend it to their workplace or school as a way to save the environment and save on IT costs," he said. "It seems to be working."

With the free giveaway, Rousseau said, customers can see how well the software works and then decide to purchase an upgrade to Userful’s Desktop Multiplier software, which allows for up to 10 attached monitors, mice, and keyboards to run from a single computer. Currently, Userful offers a special deal in which customers can purchase a four-user starter kit (with a quad-head video card, plus four USB keyboards and mice) for $199.

Key applications that can be run on the Multiplier software include the Firefox and Epiphany web browsers; OpenOffice word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications; Adobe Reader; Totem Movie Player; and Nautilus Open Folder File Manager.

According to Userful, hundreds of schools worldwide already are using the Desktop Multiplier software, and the company expects that number to jump to more than 4,000 after a number of upcoming deployments.

Rousseau says Userful is especially proud of a project to provide 105 schools in South Africa with 2,205 workstations using only 315 computers. The company hopes its project will help narrow the digital divide there and expand students’ technical skills.

Schools in the United States are using the solution, too. One school system that is saving on IT costs with Userful’s software is the 3,300-student Community Schools of Frankfort in Indiana, the company reports.

Frankfort schools already were deploying SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop systems through Indiana’s Affordable Classroom Computers for Every Secondary Student (inACCESS) program, which aims to supply a desktop computer running Linux for every high school student. The Frankfort schools were able to extend each Linux machine to six students at a time with Userful’s Linux Multiplier software. Students can connect a USB headset or memory key to their keyboard to listen to audio files and save files locally.

The end result has been improved performance, better multimedia support, and cost savings of up to 80 percent on hardware, management, network infrastructure, and electricity, local officials say.

Userful isn’t the first company with a product that extends the processing power of a single PC to multiple users. California-based NComputing offers a similar multi-user solution (see eSchool News article on NComputing ).

Rousseau said his company requires only software to turn one computer into several, unlike NComputing, which uses proprietary thin-client hardware for its solution. He also said Userful uses video cards for rendering graphics, instead of the machine’s central processing unit–so "there is much less of a performance hit as we scale to multiple users," he claimed.

However, Stephen Dukker, chairman and CEO for NComputing–whose solution reportedly can support up to 30 users on a single PC–says while Userful’s software is an "excellent solution," NComputing is really the next generation.

"Userful is part of the earlier technology that dealt with multiple graphics cards and wasn’t an integrated hardware solution."

According to Dukker, there are really two main problems that distinguish Userful from NComputing:

  1. The availability of graphics hardware on one PC is limited, meaning that only a small number of graphics cards–and therefore users–can be on one PC. Also, graphic cards are power hungry and can waste a lot of the PC’s energy.
  2. Because the monitor needs to be connected to the graphics card, it needs a cable. The USB keyboard also needs a wire, and so does the mouse, et cetera. Multiple cables and wires make integration both expensive and complicated.

"While Userful is great, it’s about three to five years old in terms of its concept," says Dukker. "PC’s are really moving past this type of infrastructure."

Dukker touted NComputing’s new X-Series–that supports up to seven users and has a configuration which includes one or two PCI cards, each of which has three connectors-as well as their L-Series Ethernet connection.