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

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

Consider the similarity between Angelina Jolie and the One Laptop Per Child project. Both garner gobs of favorable publicity for their humanitarian work that overshadow, in Jolie's case, her recent dry spell at the box office, and in the OLPC's case, its lack of a proven business model.

By that measure, perhaps NComputing is like Sandra Bullock, the low-profile star whose movies have nevertheless grossed more than US$2.2 billion.

In the past 21 months, the unknown start-up has provided low-cost computing to half a million students in 70 countries.

While thrifty US schools remain NComputing's largest market, more than 60 percent of its customers are overseas, in developing countries such as Brazil, China, India, Thailand and the Philippines, according to Stephen Dukker, chairman and CEO.

"We think our device has important social significance, too," he said.

Most recently, the country of Macedonia announced plans to serve all 420,000 of its K-12 students using a combination of PCs running Ubuntu Linux and NComputing's PC-sharing devices, which turn each computer into a mini-server that can be shared with up to 30 students in a single classroom.

"The cost to build PCs hasn't gone down. What has changed is that today's desktops are yesterday's mainframes," Dukker said.

NComputing claims that it can provide computer access -- whether for Windows XP, Linux or even Mac boxes -- for as little as US$70 per student, a fraction of the US$200 price tag that OLPC, along with competing laptops such as Intel's Classmate PC and Taiwan's Asus' Eee, are struggling to meet.

OLPC is a 'cute photo-op'

Having failed to secure any million laptop orders from Third World countries, the OLPC now plans to sell two laptops for US$400 to North American consumers -- one to keep, one to go to a child in a developing country.

Dukker claims he bears the OLPC project no ill will (though readers of a recent debate between him and OLPC's president Walter Bender in The Wall Street Journal may disagree). But he said he's not surprised by the OLPC's economic travails.

"The US$100 laptop is a cute photo-op," Dukker said. "It's an endearing product and a well-intentioned initiative. But the price is an aspiration, not reality."

While that could be seen as a competitor's rhetoric, Dukker may also be one of the few industry figures with the credibility to deliver that message. While declining to reveal his privately held firm's revenue, he said that if NComputing were a PC maker selling the equivalent number of computers, it would be grossing more than half a billion dollars a year.

Thinking cheap in the precommodity era

Dukker spent two decades in the PC business, with two spirited but failed attempts to re-invent the PC economic wheel.

In the mid-1980s, Dukker was, as the Chicago Tribune put it in a pre-Web era, a high-tech "bad boy." His mail-order firm, PC Network, sold IBM PC clones for the then-unheard-of price of US$500.

To maintain that price point, PC Network relied on adventurous tactics, such as sourcing parts and PCs directly from Asian manufacturers -- including some components intended for sale in countries beside the U.S. That tricky balancing act eventually resulted in PC Network's collapse into bankruptcy just about the same time that another firm, run by a college student named Michael Dell, took off.

After various industry stints, including running CompUSA's in-house PC brand, Dukker reemerged in the late 1990s as the co-founder and CEO of eMachines, which introduced the first sub-US$400 PC.

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