Not Using a Server-Based Model? Weird!

If you live in the United States, you're probably familiar with the discussion about the general population having access to the Internet and to computers in general. The basic idea is that having online connectivity gives people access to resources and training that they won't get otherwise. It's not just stereotypically "poor" people who suffer from not having computer access. Although computer training now seems to be standard in colleges (even in elementary and high schools in some places), this is a relatively new development. Imagine being in your mid-30s with 10 years experience in a job in which you never see or use a PC. You decide that you want a job with more advancement possibilities. However, every job you want requires some kind of computer experience.

Yes, people should help themselves, but saying that a city's Internet cafes provide sufficient computing access to people who don't have computers at home is silly. Except in the most wired of cities, Internet cafes are more a fantasy than a reality, and half an hour online with an overpriced latte at your elbow isn't enough to learn anything. Some kind of inhouse system or easily accessible community computing center is required if the people who have never had a chance to learn to use computers are going to get the skills they need to compete in today's workforce.

At this point, the computing-for-all movement is small and mostly funded by private contributors. Last summer, Netier Technologies, Data General, Citrix, and Microsoft installed a thin-client environment in the Edgewood Terrace housing project in northeast Washington, DC, where they used Netier terminals and Windows terminal services to provide applications and a locked-down environment to almost 900 apartments.

USinternetworking (USi) has now joined the private funding group; on March 21, Senator Barbara Mikulski (MD-D) awarded USi a special commendation for its initiative to provide computer equipment and training to the residents of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis (HACA). Residents of the Housing Authority Communities have access to three community training centers—with computers, printers, high-speed network access, and training. In addition, for 1 year, five residents per month will receive hardware, software, desk, chair, Internet access, and a prepaid phone line for inhome use. USi and HACA are also providing training, tutoring, and mentoring for the people in the program. As of March 30, MaxSpeed and Mandrake have partnered for a similar setup in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacoima's new Community Technology Center.

Nice work on USi's part, but what's weird is that USi, an application service provider (ASP), isn't using a server-based computing model to get the applications to the training centers or residents. The logic escapes me. First, using the ASP model would be a great public relations stunt: Look! Not only is USi doing something civic-minded, but it's also giving the server-based computing model a real workout. Second, server-based computing is the best way to outfit a training center or homes for those inexperienced with computers and with minimal technical assistance available. The model requires less maintenance than a PC-centric model, is less vulnerable to customer misconfiguration, and potentially requires less space and power. When I asked Kim Elek of USi why they chose a desktop-centric model over the server-based design you'd expect from an ASP, she replied, "This is not a comparable situation—the applications that USi deploys are enterprise applications to midsize companies and not desktop applications to individuals or small groups." Still, wouldn't that be a situation calling for partnering? Other ASPs provide desktops and productivity applications.

I'm glad that USi is involved in its community, and I think they're providing a valuable service. But it's disturbing that they chose a client-centric setup. Not only is this not the best model for this kind of project, but installing applications locally doesn't say a lot about USi's confidence in the ASP model.

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