HP Touts Four-in-One Linux PC

With new PCs offering more computing power than a single user needs for basic work such as exploring the Internet or creating documents, Hewlett-Packard is now pushing a desktop machine that includes four monitors, keyboards, and mice. The Mandrakelinux-equipped machine can be used by four users at one time.

The quad computer, called the HP 441, is being aimed first at the education market in developing countries, where keeping hardware costs down is critical. The machines can be equipped with Intel Celeron or Pentium 4 processors and come with at least 512MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, and four specialized graphics cards.

In an announcement this week, Paris-based Mandrakesoft SA says the machines include a customized Mandrakelinux operating system that allows users to access the operating system and applications at the same time. The Linux kernel already allows two users to share the operating system at the same time; modifications to the source code for this product doubled those capabilities.

Already in Use

Brooke Partridge, HP's business manager for emerging markets, says the HP 441 is already being used in schools in a pilot project in South Africa and work is continuing on expanding sales into other countries. The machine is optimized for education use and includes more than 70 related applications and the open-source OpenOffice.org productivity suite.

In South Africa, the machines sell for about $400 per seat, or $1600 for four users, which can be as much as 50 percent less than separate white-box PCs equipped with monitors, keyboards, and mice, Partridge says. Having four people use one PC at the same time saves about 50 percent of the hardware acquisition costs and 65 percent of maintenance costs, she says.

The idea for the machines was born out of an HP Linux Competency Center in Grenoble, France, where engineers looked at ways of using the power of modern PCs in more productive ways, Partridge says. Even with four users running applications at once, she says, the system resources don't get overtaxed.

Open Source

HP chose Linux for the machines for several reasons, including the ability to access and modify the operating system source code, and because it is leaner and has more capacity for system resources while offering the lowest per-seat prices for users. Another factor, she says, is that many governments in emerging markets have shown a preference for the use of open-source software when possible because of lower costs and added flexibility.

"We would be more than happy to discuss the potential of the 441 with Microsoft, but right now, we've done it with Linux," Partridge says.

The 441 will be offered in other developing nations in November, she says, and could eventually hit the U.S. market. But she declines to comment on that prospect in detail.

Francois Bancilhon, CEO of Mandrakesoft, says in a statement that the new hardware shows that technology innovations can be used to help users save money.

Intriguing Idea

Analysts say the idea and the potential for the systems is intriguing.

Rob Batchelder, an independent analyst at Relevance in Trumball, Connecticut, says the 441 essentially provides mainframelike time sharing instead of requiring costly hardware for each user. "As a variation on a hardware line, I think it's a good idea," he says. "It makes perfect sense with Linux."

At least one similar product, the Buddy PC from now-defunct Vega Technologies, offered cables and hardware in the late 1990s that would allow two users to access the same PC. "I think it's a very interesting question," Batchelder says. "We should have processing speed to burn."

Carol Baroudi, an analyst at Baroudi Bloor in Arlington, Massachusetts, said that while the concept of a four-user PC for the education market is a good one, its attraction for small and medium-size businesses might also be worth exploring. "Anything that's pushing the price point down for small business is a good thing," Baroudi says.

But business users would need to be sure that they can run needed applications on Linux, she says.

This story, "HP Touts Four-in-One Linux PC" was originally published by Computerworld.

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