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Making Old Computers Feel Brand New

A startup lets customers run the latest software on a remote server.

Each time a new version of Windows is released, many computer users find that their hardware is suddenly outdated. For cash-strapped schools, upgrading to the latest hardware with each major software release is simply impossible. A New York startup called NeverWare is offering a possible solution—a server that lets even decade-old PCs upgrade to the latest Windows 7 operating system.

Once NeverWare’s server, called the JuiceBox a100, is added to a school’s existing computer network , it does the hard work of running the latest operating systems for numerous aging computers on the same network. To users of those old computers, it will feel as if the PCs are running the latest version of Windows, when in fact they are accessing it over the network. Their typing and mouse commands are sent to the software on the server, and the imagery for their display is sent back.

Once connected to a JuiceBox, a PC doesn’t even need a hard drive, or any local software at all. NeverWare’s founder, Jonathan Hefter, says a 10-year-old desktop computer running Windows 98 would work just fine. He’s targeting the U.S. education market and institutions in the developing world with the technology. “Schools can’t afford to upgrade PCs, and developing countries can’t afford PCs, so if we can use the power of the cloud, we can move to a more efficient model of computing,” Hefter says. His company’s JuiceBox servers are being used to power networks of desktops in two New Jersey schools.

Another company, NComputing, also uses servers to offer “virtual desktops” to multiple users, and supplies its technology to some schools around the world. However, NComputing’s approach requires a new device that links a user’s keyboard, mouse, and monitor to a distant server over the Web. One NeverWare JuiceBox is larger than an NComputing device, but then it only takes one JuiceBox to “upgrade” a network of tens of computers, says Hefter.

Joyojeet Pal, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, thinks NeverWare’s approach has potential. “What this project seems to offer is an alternative to an online operating system like Google’s Chrome OS,” Pal says. Google’s approach requires users to use Web versions of software packages, rather than providing access to traditional software. However, Pal says, the cost of maintaining an outdated machine could still be considerable due to the need for repairs and labor, for example.

NeverWare is not unlike the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, says Mark Foster, a former VP of engineering with OLPC. “Working there was like doing a year in the Peace Corps, from a computer perspective,” he says. “You see what a difference it makes when kids get the tools that enable them to learn, and you never forget it. In the same way, NeverWare is a terrific idea.”

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