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 Co. 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 Monday, Paris-based Mandrakesoft SA said 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.

Brooke Partridge, HP’s business manager for emerging markets, said 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 US$400 per seat, or US$1,600 for four users, which can be as much as 50 per cent less than separate white-box PCs equipped with monitors, keyboards and mice, Partridge said. 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 said.

The idea for the machines was born out af 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 said. Even with four users running applications at once, she said, the system resources don’t get overtaxed.

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 said, 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 said.

The 441 will be offered in other developing nations in November, she said, and could eventually hit the North American market. But she declined to comment on that prospect in detail.

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

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

Rob Batchelder, an independent analyst at Relevance in Trumball, Conn., said 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 said. “It makes perfect sense with Linux.”

At least one similar product, the Buddy PC from now-defunct Vega Technologies Inc., 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 said. “We should have processing speed to burn.”

Carol Baroudi, an analyst at Baroudi Bloor in Arlington, Mass., 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 said.

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

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