Poor nations gain more choices in computing

There is debate on whether developing nations should invest in computers over classrooms and textbooks

And it's important to have Rwandan kids using the computers. "If you give a child a laptop, you have put that kid on par with a kid in Europe," he said.

His nation bought 10,000 OLPC laptops last year, and plans to purchase 20,000 more this year, despite the huge issue of cost to his country. It's important to have kids start to learn how to use digital devices and the Internet as soon as possible to help build an information technology economy in the country, he said.

"You need access to the devices," he said. "You cannot learn to ride a bicycle without the bicycle."

But since the cost per child is such an issue, he said the company that offers the lowest cost will win in Rwanda. And there are alternatives to OLPC, even beyond rival low-cost laptops such the ClassMate PC and Asustek's Eee PC.

NComputing, a for-profit company, is taking a different approach that could end up costing far less than such laptops. The company uses virtualization to essentially turn a single PC into a mainframe serving between seven and 30 workstations.

PCs are so powerful these days that they can serve far more than one person with little impact on user experience, unless the person is using the PC for gaming, scientific calculations or multimedia, said Steve Dukker, chairman and CEO of NComputing, in a phone interview.

"You can call us the unexpected benefit of virtualization," he said.

The NComputing system cuts costs tremendously. The cost per child of each NComputing system, for seven users, is $US70 each, in a system running at just 1 watt per user.

Those are the kinds of statistics, per user cost and wattage, that make a difference.

Hitting a cost of $100 per OLPC laptop is actually easier than making a system that uses less than 2-watts of power, OLPC Chairman Nicholas Negroponte said in an interview earlier this year. Power is both a cost and access issue in most developing nations.

NComputing's biggest sale so far has been to schools in Macedonia, where Dukker said the machines pay for themselves in power savings in just six months.

"Electricity in the developing world will cost five times what it costs in the US," he said. Many countries don't have power grids up, and most don't buy enough oil, coal or other materials to gain bulk cost savings like the US does. Other sources put electricity costs higher than his estimate, at six to 10 times what it costs in the US.

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