Stephen Dukker got his first job in computers at the age of 16, as a technical support representative for a company that sold computing services. He's never looked back.
"I was one of the very early senior executives at a firm called CompUSA, which at one time was the largest computer retailer in the world. I was the founder of a company called eMachines, which 10 years ago, revolutionized the industry when we took the price of computers down from $1000 to $500 and opened up the market to millions and millions of new users based on affordability," Dukker says.
Now, the entrepreneur is applying that low-cost strategy on a global scale, with NComputing, a company he founded in 2003. Dukker says NComputing is helping to bring technology to classrooms around the world, at a fraction of the cost of installing individual machines.
Using idle memory to create virtual PCs
NComputing's novel networking scheme uses the untapped processing power of today's personal computers. Dukker points out, "The lowest-cost desktop computer, $300 or less, is now a supercomputer and we keep hearing that we're only using a fraction of the available capability of that PC and the rest fundamentally goes to waste." So, Dukker's company offers software and hardware that allows that $300 desktop computer to run programs and applications for dozens of students at the same time.
"You put this software on any computer and what it does is [it] creates within the memory of those computers, what we'll call 'virtual desktop computers'," he explains.
The way the ingenious system works, says Dukker, is that, "you plug this little box into your computer, and all of the computing is done on these virtual desktops inside the shared machine, but you think you've got your own computer all to yourself and you can't tell the difference that you're working on something other than a computer and sharing this other resource and doing it at a much lower cost than having your own PC."
Returning to a strategy of sharing computing power
Dukker says the concept is much like the networking model used in the earliest days of the computer industry.
"Back in the 1960s and 70s," he recalled, "when computers were mainframes and cost a million bucks or more, we had a business called commercial time-sharing. You bought a dumb terminal that cost you hundreds to a thousand dollars and you paid by the hour for the use of this computer."
That approach made computing affordable for companies that couldn't purchase their own mainframes. That continued into the 70s and 80s, Dukker says, when relatively cheaper minicomputers replaced mainframes.
Giving students access to the world
Dukker says the reintroduction of the central computing concept, this time, by sharing one PC's power among many students, gives schools a way to stretch limited budgets. He points to NComputing's first large international project in the tiny Balkan nation of Macedonia, where 23,000 PCs support 180,000 workstations.
"They made the commitment to provide every single student in the country with a dedicated workstation and they chose our technology for that deployment," Dukker says.
He adds that when a Macedonian official was asked why he chose this technology, "his first comment was, 'It was the only one we could afford.' PCs were four times the price, so they would've had one workstation for four kids, instead of one for one." Dukker says the minister also noted that fewer computers reduces expenses for technical support and maintenance.
While acknowledging the value of individual laptop computers, Dukker says shared use of scarce resources will give more children greater access to the Internet and the opportunities it affords. Hundreds of thousands of students in developing countries around the world can now go online, he says proudly, on NComputing systems.
A good business that does good deeds
While in Bangladesh for news coverage of a new NComputing technology lab, Dukker says, "One of the reporters went over to a kid and said, 'What has it meant to you to basically have access to computers?' The kid gave a very short answer, 'I want to be a doctor.' Behind the kid is a guy standing who's in tears," Dukker says, chuckling at the memory. "The reporter goes to him and says, 'Who are you and why are you crying?' He says, 'I'm the headmaster. Last year, this child's entire universe was the farm that he's growing up on, and now by having access to the Internet he sees the world is a much bigger and richer place and the access to the Internet has made this happen.'"
Dukker says he has the best job in the world because he is able to run a profitable business and make socially significant changes that benefit people. "It's a gift to have a job which combines those two dimensions," he says.
NComputing systems are now in use by more than 4 million students in 1500 U.S. school districts, and worldwide, at 40,000 sites in 100 countries.
Stephen Dukker's efforts to bridge the world's Digital Divide are changing the way many use computers in their daily lives.