Mark Beckford tried to get Intel to believe in making computers for developing countries. The world’s biggest chip maker succeeded in launching the Classmate PC, but Beckford — once the general manager for Intel’s emerging markets business — felt Intel’s heart was in selling more expensive chips for mainstream computers.
He left Intel in January. Now he has joined NComputing to take up the same cause, but with different technology based on thin-client computers instead. His departure says much about how hard a time Intel has had creating chips for low-cost computers. The very idea just runs against what Intel makes most of its money doing: selling high-end chips with fat profit margins.
NComputing can make very cheap computing devices by setting up a single desktop computer that can be shared by many smaller devices. Those smaller machines each get a slice of the computing power of the main machine. That drives the cost of each node down to about $70. So far, the price and idea are resonating well, since NComputing has sold more than a million units to schools, governments, consumers and others in 100 different countries.
Beckford said in an interview that success drew him to Redwood City, Calif.-based NComputing, which has 150 employees and is headed by former eMachines chief executive Stephen Dukker. Beckford will serve as vice president of global business development.
“I have always had a passion for bringing technology to people who haven’t been able to afford it in the past,” said Beckford, who spent 11 years at Intel and was the original architect for Intel’s World Ahead program that promoted the low-cost Classmate PC laptop.
Beckford cited the Innovator’s Dilemma, by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, who argued that big companies are rarely motivated to disrupt their own cash-cow product lines by coming up with something does the same thing for a lower cost. Since NComputing doesn’t have its own high-end PC business, it doesn’t care about disrupting higher-value products.
Beckford joins other high-profile leaders at NComputing. In September, former Microsoft executive Will Poole joined as co-chairman. And earlier this year, Lindsay Petrillose, who worked on Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child program, joined NComputing to be government affairs liaison.
NComputing uses virtualization software to split a PC into multiple desktops that users can share by plugging a monitor, keyboard and mouse into a $70 thin client that operates on one watt of power. Clearly, NComputing has enough momentum to light a fire under Beckford’s old bosses.
It was competition with OLPC that prompted Intel to start its World Ahead effort a few years ago. But NComputing has won significant deals, including a deal to provide 50,000 machines for more than 5,000 schools in one of India’s biggest states.
Ncomputing was founded in 2004 by a team in Germany and South Korea. Besides the $8 million first round led by Scale Ventures, the company also raised $28 million in a second round led by Menlo Ventures earlier this year.