The $100 box? It's already here

While Gates and Negroponte fire off at each other, CNET News.com's Charles Cooper finds a no-name upstart that's beaten both to market.

Nicholas Negroponte and Bill Gates have publicly dueled for months about how best to supply inexpensive computing to the world's masses.

Negroponte, the co-founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has put forward specifications for a pedal-powered laptop, as many countries targeted by the One Laptop Per Child plan do not have electric power in remote areas.

Negroponte's best guesstimate is that the organization will have a workable machine ready for shipment within the year. He claims that an initial 5 million to 15 million test units will become available by that time. But even if he hits that target, that's a veritable eternity in the computer business.

At this point, Gates' plans are even more ephemeral. Seems the only thing Microsoft's co-founder is sure about is that he does not think much of Negroponte's proposal. During a Microsoft-sponsored event for government leaders in March, Gates dismissed the idea of a shared computer--a barb apparently aimed at Negroponte.

"If you are going to go have people share the computer, get a broadband connection and have somebody there who can help support the user. Jeez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text, and you're not sitting there cranking the thing while you're trying to type," Gates was quoted as saying.

OK, but if the point is to deliver a 21st century computing device to the world's masses, it may already be here. 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.

Why haven't you heard about nComputing?

Could be because it's been flying too far below the (American) radar for most people to notice. But in the last 18 months, nComputing has shipped about 80,000 units to customers in the Asia Pacific and Latin American regions at prices, in some cases, below the magic $100 mark.

More recently, the company won a high-profile contract to supply the World Trade Organization's December meeting in Hong Kong. nComputing also received the award for best server-based application at the CeBit conference in Hannover, Germany, earlier this year. Now the company's stepping up its presence in the U.S.

The odds are admittedly against a newbie entering a commodity hardware niche in an increasingly hardscrabble market. But if we've learned anything about the history of the technology business, it's that the constellation is always in motion. It wasn't so long ago that the digerati determined we were forever destined to live in an all-Microsoft Windows world. Then came Linux and Java--not to mention a revived Apple--and you know the rest of that story.

nComputing has something else in its favor. Steve Dukker, a savvy technology veteran who put eMachines on the map as its founding chief executive, has signed on to help do the same for nComputing in this country. (The CEO is Young Song, who was a co-founder of eMachines.) It's hard to handicap the chances of any start-up, but management savvy counts for a lot. Dukker did this once; if the stars align in the right way, maybe he can do it again.

I've seen the systems up close. They run structured applications, such as spreadsheets or word processors, without apparent problem. Each system on the network operates as if it were an independent terminal. You might run into performance issues with transaction-intensive computer games. But that's not the market these guys want to target--and if we're talking about reaching the untethered and underprivileged billions, the story becomes quite interesting.

nComputing's systems do not use chips from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices (or Microsoft operating systems).

The company instead has implemented an entire "thin client" system on a single chip with no operating system or application programs. As nComputing increases product volume, it expects prices per unit will plummet. Dukker says the margins are still sufficient to support a business.

An add-in card supports up to three additional users, hardwired up to 30 feet away from the host CPU over regular unshielded twisted pair wiring. You can add up to two cards into a single, low-end PC to support a total of seven users. That pushes the cost-per-user below the $70 per seat mark.

nComputing also sells a couple of versions of a terminal server for Windows.

One runs natively under Microsoft Windows and, for that matter, Linux. That version generates an environment where a number of users can share a single copy of Windows or Linux loaded onto the host PC. The second version is deployed in conjunction with VMWare, so you have several virtual machines, each running its own copy of Windows or Linux (or both) in a mixed environment.

None of this means nComputing is destined to beat out the efforts of Negroponte or Gates. This promises to be a protracted and competitive race where name recognition and industry throw-weight count for an awful lot. But wouldn't it be something if the underdog snuck past the big dogs because they were too busy arguing with each other?

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