Hewlett-Packard is launching 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 HP441, 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 512Mbyte of Ram, a 40Gbyte hard drive, a CD-Rom drive and four specialised graphics cards.
Mandrakesoft said the machines include a customised 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 simultanously.
Brooke Partridge, HP's business manager for emerging markets, said the HP441 is already being used at schools in a pilot project in South Africa and work is continuing on expanding sales into other countries.
The machine is optimised for education use and includes more than 70 related applications and the OpenOffice.org productivity suite.
In South Africa, the machines sell for about US$400 (£216) per seat, or $1,600 for four users, which can be as much as 50% less than separate white-box PCs equipped with monitors, keyboards and mice, Partridge said.
The idea for the machines was born out af an HP Linux Competency Center in Grenoble, where engineers looked at ways of using the power of modern PCs in more productive ways.
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, Partridge 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.
The 441 will be offered in other developing nations in November, she said, and could eventually hit the US market.
Francois Bancilhon, chief executive of Mandrakesoft, said that the 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, said the 441 essentially provides mainframe-like time sharing instead of requiring costly hardware for each user. "As a variation on a hardware line 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, 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, said that while the concept of a four-user PC for the education market is a good one, its attraction for small and medium-sized businesses might also be worth exploring. "Anything that's pushing the price point down for small business is a good thing," she said.
Todd R Weiss writes for Computerworld