2011 Winner: Innovation In Information And Communications Technology Sponsored By TELUS
Multiple-Station Computer System Creates Opportunities For Children, Governments
An Alberta-based software company is performing a sleight-of-hand — turning one computer into ten, and changing the lives of millions of children with installations in over 75,000 schools in 100 countries.
“Our software helps governments deploy two to three times more computers for the same budget dollars, giving a leg up in life to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a computer,” says Userful Corporation’s President and CEO Tim Griffin. “For many of the students in these schools this is their first encounter with computers. And they now can have internet access and can learn anything that they are interested in. Improving the education of two to three times more kids has a huge and long lasting social impact.”
Userful’s multi-station platform allows up to 10 users to share a single computer, reducing hardware costs by up to 80 per cent, and required infrastructure — power plugs, cabling, energy costs, etc. — by a factor of 10 as compared to a traditional PC-per-seat solution. The desktop is virtually unbreakable, which allows locked-down, secure, yet fully-featured computer use for the public.
Additionally expensive software costs are cut to zero because Userful includes the free Linux operating system and application software along with every seat sold. Governments globally are looking to move to Linux due to the massive long-term economic advantages gained by broad scale adoption of the open source operating system within their country.
“What’s unique about our innovation is that it is based on Linux and open source software,” Mr. Griffin explains. “Practically every Windows application has a free equivalent from Linux, dramatically reducing software license costs.”
Developing countries in particular, are reaping the benefits of Userful’s technology. In collaboration with the Brazilian firms ThinNetworks, Positivo, CCE, Daruma & Itautech and local installers, Userful has equipped over 50,000 schools in Brazil with over 500,000 computer stations, in the largest digital inclusion project ever undertaken in the world.
In addition, because of reduced costs the Brazilian Ministry of Education’s Linux-based computer labs reach over 35 million students. Many of them are in remote schools in indigenous villages where infrastructure is minimal, electricity is unreliable, and roads are impassable by car. Userful’s substantially reduced infrastructure requirements allow the government to install these labs without upgrading wiring in the school, achieving even further savings over traditional approaches. Additionally these computers can be used outside of school hours for community and adult education programs, creating even broader reach and impact.
“We’ve made Linux accessible to governments worldwide,” Mr. Griffin says. “This allows them to deploy large numbers of computers, in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. More people need to know that there’s an alternative to the waste, expense, maintenance burden of a traditional Windows PC deployment.”
Most of the company’s products go to international markets. But with almost all of its sales income directed to hiring more staff, mostly in research and development, Userful has made a significant contribution to diversifying the Alberta economy.
In recent years, Userful has experienced double and triple digit revenue growth. The company has grown from four employees in 1999 to over 50 employees today most of whom are in Calgary.