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A PC For Every Citizen

Power to the People? Try PCs to the People

  • August 18, 2005
  • By Brian Proffitt

While most companies are out targeting the enterprise user with Linux, one Houston, TX company is turning the model on its ear and will be using Linux to deliver technology to the general population.

The company's name is SimDesk, and they are leading a progressive charge to deliver portable IT services to any one who can access a public computer and let users work with their own files and use free productivity tools no matter what machine the individual is using.

According to SimDesk President and CEO Louis Waters, the SimDesk model is to treat IT services just like any other utility. If you turn the water faucet, you will get your water in a transparent manner that many users don't even consider (unless there's a problem). SimDesk users, Waters explained, will have a similar experience with their IT use.

"Our focus, our real true core focus as a company, is providing enterprise-class IT as a computing utility to entire populations at a time," Waters said in an interview with LinuxPlanet, "So this is where the utility computing element of our whole ethos comes in. We want to deliver not just e-mail, not just niche solutions, but the entire network experience."

The "entire experience," in SimDesk's model, are "the four pillars of your basic network: file services; print services; messaging and communication services; and groupware and collaboration services," Waters explained.

SimDesk coins this model as the digital backback or the digital briefcase, depending on the age and occupation of the user. Users can login to a computer with a SimDesk client and access all of their data as well as tools to work with that data: everything from a word processor to a PIM to e-mail clients, among others.

The advantages to just this approach are clear. Users who are accessing computers in a public setting such as a library or community center no longer have to worry about the specific computer into which they are logging. Any computer in the client's Sim network will be able to give the user access to the same tools and their own personal data.

But there are other methods of getting to the data, Waters said. If the user can get to any Internet-enabled computer, then the browser will enable them to access their data and e-mail messages. SimDesk has also developed a portal to allow file access from Internet-capable phones and PDAs.

If the user has a BREW-enabled device, they will have even more robust access to their files. "If you have a BREW-capable mobile phone, and soon we'll also have this on J2ME, you'll have a native client experience on your phone, to access your whole file system as well as your calendar, PIM, and other data," Waters said.

One example of this technology would be a small business owner who was across town from his business location and needed to get a file to a customer right away. From their phone, Waters described, they could access the file and e-mail it directly to the customer right from the remote location. Not only would this save time, but it would also portray the business owner as being very technology savvy.

Currently, the client is available for Windows, but Waters emaphasized that a beta version of the SimDesk client is being developed for Linux.

"So as you can imagine suddenly," he added, "we completely and totally destroy the idea of device dependency. Whatever you put on our system, you can get to it from any device, and very importantly, from Windows and Linux platforms.

"That's why we call it utility computing. It's totally delivered as a service, as a utility."

Open source plays a role in the development side of the SimDesk's technology as well: the company has chosen to open source the APIs that hook into the client technology, so anyone who wants to develop a custom tool for SimDesk can plug it right in.

Beyond the technology and the potential it brings to computer users who might not otherwise have access to these kind of tools, there is the customer base that SimDesk Technologies has decided to sell to: municipalities and non-profits. While the idea of a transparent workstation has some enterprise potential, Waters indicated that their company sees a greater need for citizens who need access to technology and who might not otherwise afford it or have a need to access their data from more than one location.

Waters sees his company as a true utility, no different from a water or power company. And that model has led to the company's initial successes with the SimDesk technology.

"That's why governments do respond to what we're talking about," he stated. "You can always see the lightblub go off in the meeting when they realize that we can put IT services into every citizen's hands the same way electricity is available in every house--that's when it goes Bing! And that gets exciting."

And thus far, some big-name governments have had that light-bulb go off. SimDesk's own Houston as well as the City of Chicago have each opted for their own Sim networks, SimHouston and SimChicago, respectively.

Also particpating is the most geographically distributed client, the State of Indiana. Yet another segment of the Access Indiana program that is currently piloting and deploying Linux desktops into Indiana schools, the SimIndiana network is available at state and local libraries as well as WorkOne employment support centers throughout the state. It also available to home, business, and school users from their own computers, all free of charge.

Waters sees this technology being a great benefit to other nations as well: "Some of our best examples of progress are in developing countries. Brazil is a great example. They very strongly recognize that a technology-empowered population, a technology-empowered workforce is a huge driver of economic gain on the world stage."

SimDesk is currently deploying their product in Brazil and are in what Waters described as "late-stage discussions" with various Asian and European countries, while continuing to work on several state pursuits here in the US.

While the Linux client is currently in private beta, the planned release of the Linux Sim drivers will likely be of even greater use to more budget-conscious organizations, as the need to no longer pay for and maintain Windows clients will be a big boost to anyone's IT budget. Not to mention the added security in the face of recent onslaught of Windows malware.

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