Over at CNET there's a new article today about how best to supply inexpensive computing to the world's masses, The $100 box? It's already here
It discusses MIT's plans for a pedal-powered laptop, and Microsoft's reaction (Bill Gates has dismissed the idea of a shared computer). The article then points out that there's already a player in this field: "While Gates and Negroponte continue to debate the form and function of their respective plans for the $100 PC, a South Korean startup called nComputing has already beaten them to the punch."
Take a look at nComputing's description of the NStation L100 ... "You can share affordable computing environment with relatively cheaper cost of ownership. Just purchasing one host computer and multiple NStation L100 as needed up to ten, you can achieve computing environment of max. eleven users at the same." There are other models, the latest being L200, for which there's a statement that you can support more than ten stations (up to 30) if the cental PC is running Windows Server 2003.
While the base station itself may be inexpensive, the $100 price is only for the base station and the overall cost will be extended by the need to have (a) a host machine, with operating system, having sufficient processing and storage capacity, and (b) for each user, a keyboard and monitor and mouse, plus the power to run the monitor. Of course, there are plenty of spare used monitors and old keyboards around, so maybe these can be shipped across to help keep down the cost per user.
The lack/reliability of electrical power in some remote locations would in many cases be a showstopper, so the pedal-powered laptop certainly has its attractions in this regard.
There's another perspective on nComputing's product at Targa Hong Kong where they brand the device as the Targa OfficeStation NetStar. And there's also the Targa Net Star Network Monitor which looks like an ordinary 17-inch LCD monitor but has the OfficeStation built in.
But what about the cental PC and its operating system -- what are the OS licencing implications? The nComputing page linked to above coyly (deliberately?) states, under the heading Simultaneous OS Operation:
(Additional software license may be required)
The parentheses are deliberately retained here, to indicate the coyness!
Ans there's the rub! I would imagine that if the central PC is running any flavor of Microsoft Windows, there likely will be the requirement for one CAL per user, which would signifcantly blow out the overall costs. Comments on this would be appreciated. Official clarification by Microsoft would be best.
On the other hand, I see that Linspire ("developer of the world's easiest desktop Linux operating system") has been busily at work and have published this press release: NComputing and Linspire Partner with Yellow Penguin to Provide Multi-User Computing Solutions to South African Customers Importantly, it says: "Linspire's Linux operating system runs perfectly on the host PC and once one genuine copy is installed, multiple users can share the operating system without paying additional access license fees." So good luck to them. I've purchased and installed the Linspire operating system, as a research project to compare a range of Linux distributions. I don't use Linspire for daily work -- I use and quite like Windows XP Professional -- and can say that Linspire certainly is packaged nicely, is easy to install and operate, and requires very little Linux knowledge at all (compared with some of the other distributions).
It's caveat emptor -- a case of "batteries not included" all over again. In short, it seems to me that it's all very well that the hardware costs can be kept quite low, but it could be that the (current) Windows licencing requirements will dictate that the central PC's operating system be Linux.
I've wandered outside my comfort zone here, any and all comments are most welcome!
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UPDATE: 20 May 2006
I just found Windows Server 2003 Pricing and Licensing: Frequently Asked Questions and it seems to me (personal view only, not at all a legal opinion) that Client Access Licenses (CALs) would be required for each and every device attached to the NStation that connects through to Windows. Perhaps the user is already covered for some number of CALs as part of the base Windows licensing, so would only have to pay for any connections above this number.