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How Green is Your PC?: New Home Computer System Reduces Power Usage

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RISMEDIA, July 31, 2007—(MCT)—Serial entrepreneur Gregoire Gentil thinks consumers who have embraced energy-efficient hybrid cars might also want a really green personal computer — and an inexpensive one.

So Gentil, with the help of his partner, investor, chairman and fellow Frenchman Alain Rossmann, has developed a low-cost, hassle-free, environmentally correct PC.

You might call it a p.c. PC.

The 34-year-old chief executive of the Menlo Park-based Zonbu — his fourth start-up — hopes consumers will pay $99 for a basic Zonbox, as he calls his system, and $12.95 a month to store their data on company servers, for a PC that uses 20 times less power than a standard PC.

Gentil said the device runs on 15 watts of power, compared to an average, full-size PC, which uses 175 watts of power. Compared to a standard desktop or laptop, he estimates consumers will save about $10 a month on their home electricity bills with a Zonbox.
“This will save one ton in CO2 emissions per year,” Gentil said.

And just this month, the Green Electronics Organization, a non-profit in Portland, gave the device its highest award as a “gold” product. It was the first consumer PC to be labeled a gold product.

The eco-friendly product is reminiscent of Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison’s Network Computer of the mid-1990s. At the time, Ellison and others proselytized the high cost and time required to maintain a PC. But the devices were mostly limited to Internet browsing and didn’t take off.

It’s all about timing

Gentil said the timing was wrong and the technology wasn’t quite there when Ellison first began to discuss his NC concept. He agreed with Ellison’s theory that a PC takes too much time to manage and is still too complicated for average users, which drove the formation of Zonbu.

“When I go back to Paris I have to spend time to work on the PC for my father,” Gentil said.

The difference between now and then is that the Zonbox is designed on an even lower-cost scale than the older Internet devices. It uses free, evolving open-source software.

And, much as they do with Web-based e-mail like Google’s Gmail and other applications, consumers may be more inclined to let their data be stored on another company’s servers and avoid the tedium of backing up data.

“Two to three years ago, OpenOffice was not quite there,” Gentil said, referring to the open-source version of Microsoft Office applications used for word processing, compiling spreadsheets and creating presentations. The Zonbox uses the Gentoo version of Linux as the core of its operating system. Because the Zonbox design includes a low-power consuming chip from Via Technologies, and no hard drive or fan, it requires less energy. It uses a 4-gigabyte flash drive instead of a hard-disk drive for storing files, photos and music, in addition to the 25 gigabytes of storage capacity available for the monthly service via Amazon’s S3 service. It also comes with 20 open-source applications pre-loaded.

Gentil, who with a small team has been developing the system over the past 18 months, is not planning to compete head-on with the highly cut-throat PC industry. “We are targeting the second-PC market,” he said, referring to consumers looking to buy a second PC for their home. “We think it’s a good concept for a den or a kitchen.”

Other PC makers have also been developing green PCs. Everex of Fremont just launched a consumer PC at $298 for back-to-school with OpenOffice. Last month, Hewlett-Packard introduced an ultra-slim, energy-efficient PC for business users — it also received a gold rating from the Green Electronics Organization — starting at $849. Two OptiPlex desktop PCs from Dell for business users also rounded out the gold category, which included only four PCs along with the Zonbox.

Two-year commitment

In addition to the Zonbox’s $99 price, consumers must prepay the two-year service agreement of $12.95 a month, for a total of $370.95, which can be canceled at any time. Refunds are available. The Zonbox is available for $249 without a two-year service commitment for back-up and storing data. A keyboard, monitor and mouse are not included, which would add another $100 to $200 to the price of a total system. Gentil said the company encourages its customers to reuse older add-on devices.

Not everyone is convinced.

“The first problem is that they look a little pricey. You are close to getting a PC with Windows or a notebook for that,” said Martin Reynolds, an analyst with Gartner, referring to the total price of the Zonbox if a consumer buys any add-on devices.
“You have to think of this thing as a browser in a box. There are a lot of things that people are going to want to do that it doesn’t do.”

Zonbu, which has about 12 employees — including open-source developers around the world — is talking to venture capitalists, but also has some undisclosed funding.
It’s currently in beta testing with customers, who can now purchase a Zonbox over the Internet and provide feedback to the company. Post-beta sales start in September, also via the Internet. Zonbu is also in talks with Internet service providers to offer the system as part of a service contract.

Copyright © 2007, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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