EOF: 441 Reasons to Go Linux

by Brooke Partridge

Walk around any of the four computer labs in the Computer Science Department at the University of the North (UNIN), 150 miles from Johannesburg, South Africa. The first thing you notice is that half of their 250 computing desks have no computers on them.

The lab technician, Melt van Niekerk, will tell you that the aging machines they do own are used 12 hours a day by 2,800 students and the warranties expired two years ago. Freddy Nailana, Head of the Computer Science Department, explains that his budget was cut from 2.5 million rand (about $400,000 US) in 2001 to only 130,000 rand last year.

The challenges could not be more evident. How can UNIN increase student access to current technology for the lowest possible price, without sacrificing warranty and service?

At HP, we think we have the answer in the Multiuser 441 desktop solution. This desktop system allows four users to work simultaneously and independently on the same CPU, hence the name 441, or four-for-one. We began with a modified Linux kernel and added four monitors, keyboards, mice and sound and graphics cards. The result is a desktop system that costs about half the price of four standalone desktops.

Linux was the key to developing the 441 solution. It's inherently a multiuser, multitasking operating system. It has great security, stability, power and cost effectiveness—additional elements required by these markets.

When we launched the HP 441 Multiuser desktop solution in South Africa in March 2004, people understood they were looking at a unique approach to solving emerging-market challenges. The four-users-for-one-CPU configuration came with a low price and no special licenses. It also has a healthy bundle of preloaded educational software and a solid warranty, making it ideal for cash-strapped schools.

At HP, we've received a flood of inquiries from people as far afield as Brazil, Austria, Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand and Egypt—all of them asking, “When can I have one?”

This is a good problem to have. The demand we're seeing is a result of a unique approach to designing solutions for emerging markets. Much of the market research, product R&D, marketing, distribution and strategic rollout of the 441 has followed a nontraditional path within HP.

The Emerging Markets Solutions team at HP manages two “solution incubation sites”, one in India and another in South Africa. Known as HP i-communities (i for inclusion), both facilities are located in relatively remote, rural areas that have not seen the kind of information technology explosion that has transformed urban centers like Bangalore and Johannesburg.

The HP i-communities serve as test beds for products and services that are tailored specifically to the needs of rural emerging-market communities. Through our deep engagements there, we learned that we couldn't simply take existing HP products and make them available to people in remote areas. We had to work closely with local users to understand their needs—which are very different from those of customers in developed economies—and then design solutions to meet them.

Partnering with numerous public and private organizations, i-community teams have initiated an impressive array of technology-based social and economic development programs. The challenge—and opportunity—for HP is in commercializing these solutions for other emerging markets around the world.

The 441 is the first HP product commercialized for this environment. It was piloted at the Mogalakwena i-community in South Africa and is being used in call centers, tribal authority offices and schools around the province. Since early 2004, the 441 has been commercially available throughout South Africa.

The introduction of the 441 has even shown up on the radar screen of local and national government officials. The South African government is a strong proponent of open-source software. It is seen as a strategic way to lower development costs, localize standard applications into the nation's 11 official languages and build the skills set of local software developers.

The support of Linux from governments across emerging markets makes the 441 a very timely product. At HP, we're excited about the 441, but we're also excited about the process that led to its development. Deep engagement in rural, developing economies is pointing to a vast new market for the company. The new solutions developed for this market will draw on the strengths and advantages of open source.

With this kind of engagement and innovation, we believe we can fill the computer labs at the University of the North for a price they can afford.

Brooke Partridge is Director of Business and Market Development for HP's Emerging Market Solutions Organization, a team that develops and commercializes technology for developing economies.

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