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By combining a mixture of proprietary administrative tools with a modified Red Hat distribution and a GNOME desktop, Userful has updated the concept of timesharing by adapting it to a personal computer. The result is DiscoverStation, a hardware and software solution that connects as many as 10 terminals to a single computer.
The system is being marketed mainly as a way to reduce administration time and costs. Other selling points include security and environmental friendliness, because fewer computers are required.
The system is proving especially attractive to cash-strapped public libraries across North America. Even more importantly, it is being used by library patrons with only minor difficulties.
Hardware, administration software, and security
DiscoverStations' basic components will be familiar to any moderately experienced GNU/Linux user. The hardware consists of standard components and, apart from the customized administration tools, the software and security model consists largely of standard Unix features and configuration options.
Physically, DiscoverStation consists of a single computer linked to as many as 10 stations through dual-head video cards and USB hubs. Each station consists of a keyboard with USB ports and monitor. A station may also have an external diskette drive.
The proprietary software in DiscoverStation consists of specialized graphical administrative tools. In addition to dialogues for setting network connections and the system time, they include graphical user reports, controls for paid printing, and Internet filters that comply with the standards set by the US Children's Internet Protection Act. Administrators can also customize the welcome screen and login menu, and set the amount of time that customers can use a station.
Userful was founded in 1999 by Timothy Griffin, now president and CEO. From the start, Griffin says, "We saw open source as the next big wave." The company began work on a kernel-based approach to a multi-station computer, similar to the one implemented by the HP 441, but it abandoned this approach because of problems with supporting multiple video cards.
Since releasing its Desktop Multiplier product in 2002, Userful has focused mainly on library deployments. Userful has 25 employees, is based in Calgary, Canada, and recently opened a second office in Victoria, Canada, headed by Daniel Griffin. In 2004, Userful was named the 15th fastest growing company in Alberta with revenues under $20 million by Alberta Venture magazine.
While not ruling out an eventual IPO, Timothy Griffin says that Userful is not currently considering one. Having "recently achieved profitability," Userful is considering funding options for its next stage of development.
In addition, Userful installs with a few basic precautions, such as having only the default kernel in the boot menu, setting the computer to boot only from the hard drive, and not supplying a command line on the desktop. Diskettes and flash drives are automounted on the desktop, but this potential security hole is countered by limiting the login time for each user and automatically wiping the users' home directories when they log out.
A potential weak spot seems to be that the systems allow remote logins -- always a problem in a security architecture. However, remote logins are inescapable in multi-branch libraries. On the whole, Userful seems to have done a thoughtful job of combining off-the-shelf hardware and software, customizing them for the chosen market, and adding its own software to fill in the gaps.
|DiscoverStation Admin - click to enlarge|
What the public sees
The DiscoverStation desktop fits its target audience of general users almost perfectly. In fact, the desktop is easily the most user-friendly interface for GNU/Linux that I've ever seen.
On logging into a DiscoverStation, users are given a basic menu of items such as Internet, Large Print, Resume, or Kids (Filtered). They can also choose one of 30 languages for the desktop from a pull-down menu.
The interface is a modified GNOME desktop. The main differences from an ordinary desktop are a counter showing a user's remaining login time, and the replacement of the Menu button with one labeled Start Here.
The application menu is also modified, with task descriptions replacing application names. However, once opened, the programs are instantly familiar to GNU/Linux users. Selecting Word Processor or Drawing, for example, starts OpenOffice.org, while Photo Editor opens the GIMP. The Web browser is a Mozilla variant. The overall selection is small -- about three dozen choices -- but tightly targeted to a general audience. Administrators can transfer to the root account from any workstation by using a keyboard shortcut to open a login screen.
Users can save to the /home directory for their workstation or to automounted external drives, and programs can be modified for the duration of their session. When users log out, the home directory is wiped and returned to its original state for the next patron. Home directories also revert to their original state if a workstation is inactive for a certain period of time.Next: What clients and users say