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It’s a tantalizing thought. The cost of destkop computing hardware is moving toward zero. Stephen Dukker, chief executive of NComputing, is moving that idea a step closer to reality today as he announces a new chip called Numo.

Of course, we don’t really mean zero. We just mean really really really cheap compared to today’s costs. Numo is a chip that integrates all of the desktop virtualization hardware that the company has created in its distributed computing solution, which lets a bunch of users share a single computer at the same time and still run all the Windows software that they need to use. And LG Electronics, the South Korean electronics giant, plans to begin selling monitors with the Numo chips as early as June.

If it takes hold in both business and the home, the Numo-based computer could take a lot of cost out of the price of computing. It’s a very disruptive idea, Dukker argues.

The revolution is already under way with distributed thin client computers. NComputing currently makes client computers that cost about $70. You plug them into a monitor and link them to a desktop computer. The client, using NComputing’s vSpace software, taps the power of virtualization. That is, it taps the unused power of the PC to operate the client as if it were another computer. You can attach 10 or 20 of these small clients to a single desktop computer. That means 20 users can do their work — such as cruising the Internet or working on productivity apps — by sharing one computer. It’s like a throwback to the days of time-shared mainframe computers.

And it’s an idea with legs. NComputing has shipped more than 2.5 million (updating number) thin client computers, including 700,000 in the corporate space. They’re being shared by 20 million users and adopted in places such as India, where the government is deploying 31,000 clients to run the equivalent of the Social Security system in India. Schools in India have also bought into it. Each client, which consumes 1 to 5 watts, saves a whole lot on energy usage. That’s so low that the clients qualify for energy rebates.

The Numo chip will take the revolution further, starting with corporate desktops. The chip enables thin clients in the enterprise to display rich multimedia and high-definition video on a monitor. LG Electronics plans to sell 19-inch to 24-inch monitors with the chip integrated into them. The total cost for deploying these monitors might be around $200, far less than a desktop computer. At CES, LG showed 31 network monitors attached to a single sub-$1,000 computer with Windows Server software and NComputing’s vSpace software.

The good thing about the Numo chip — which has two ARM processors at its core — is that it could be built into all sorts of things, from TVs to handhelds and other mobile devices, pretty much turning any device with a display into a Windows-capable computer. Devices that could use the $20 chip include set-top boxes, eBook readers, and media players. The NUMO chip also has the ability to convert video to run in the proper format on a display.

“The mass market for virtualization in the business and consumer space is upon us,” Dukker said. “We will see a profound change in the economics of computing. The cost of the client device is going to zero. A $30 bag of parts will turn any device into a PC, as long as you have an Ethernet connection.”

Of course, there are drawbacks. You can’t use these thin client computers to run fast-action games. That limits their appeal in the home. But these thin clients could be very useful in homes where a second or third family member has to get on the Internet. Dukker said he is talking to a variety of companies that could make the revolution in the home and businesses happen.

For users, this means that you have to buy one full-fledged computer and then hook a bunch of small clients to it. Dukker says that the company plans to give away 1,000 client devices with the Numo chip at the Interop show in Las Vegas starting April 25.

It sounds promising. But this isn’t the first time that Dukker shook up the industry. He was the first chief executive at eMachines in 1999 as the computer maker started selling the cheapest computers in electronics discount stores.

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