Userful has won a deal to supply its Linux-based PC-sharing software to 357,000 Linux desktops in schools throughout Brazil.

Userful's Multiplier software runs on top of any version of the open-source Linux OS and enables a single desktop PC to be shared by as many as 10 users, all connected by individual monitors, keyboards and mice.

The massive deal, won in partnership with ThinNetworks and a number of local Brazilian PC manufacturers, is Userful's largest deployment by far.

Including this deal, the Calgary, Alberta firm will now have contracts to supply more than 400,000 seats.

Userful, which announced the Brazilian deal earlier this week, has just 40 employees.

Founded in 1999, it was self-funded until receiving $1 million in venture capital money last summer, according to marketing manager Sean Rousseau.

Userful and its partners beat out the apparent market leader in the PC-sharing space, NComputing, which offers a similar solution for Windows that had sold a million seats as of last fall.

Userful won, in part, because of its low cost. The Multiplier software starts at $69 per seat, though that figure can go as low as $50 per seat for deployments as large as the one in Brazil, according to Rousseau.

There are no costs associated with licensing the operating system, another difference with NComputing's Windows-based solution.

Userful networks, especially those running the optional Userful Desktop graphical administration software, are simple enough for teachers and other non-technical employees to manage, said Rousseau.

Other support is typically provided by the PC reseller, he said. Besides lower hardware and support costs, customers can save on energy costs by running 90 per cent fewer computers.

Userful also benefited from the Brazilian government's strong support for open-source software, Rousseau said. Similar to Cuba, the government has developed and promotes the use of its own Linux distribution, Educational 2.0.

Rousseau also claimed several technical advantages for Userful over its competitors. One is in the area of graphics performance, he said, due to the way Userful's software leverages the Linux X-Server GUI and a PC's plug-in video card.

Hiccup-free streaming video

Those video cards can be any low-end card, provided they have Linux drivers. According to Rousseau, $20 cards running the 7-year-old ATI Radeon 7000 GPU are popular with its customers.

That enables hiccup-free streaming video as well as good performance for Web games running Adobe Flash.

Second, Userful supports USB devices and two-way audio, so students can use webcams and microphones to chat. Finally, it leverages Linux rather than Windows, which is more secure and requires less support, said Rousseau.

He acknowledged that potential customers worry about the lack of compatibility with Windows apps. But many are happy running free, open-source equivalents to popular Windows apps, such as OpenOffice, Firefox, GIMP for photo editing, and Thunderbird for email - or they can try running the WINE Windows emulator for Linux.

Besides schools, most of Userful's customers are governmental institutions such as libraries. The company doesn't target the private sector, though it has a few such clients.

They include telecoms in the U.S. and Germany, who rely on Userful to create workstations in their call centers where workers can take a break and check their email or surf the Web, he said.

Userful is continuing to improve its software's multimedia performance, even while enabling its Multiplier software to allow PCs be shared among even more users simultaneously, said Rousseau.

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