Houston offering software to all

The Houston City Council approved a plan this month to provide free desktop

software to all city employees and residents.

Through the SimHouston project, Internet Access Technologies Inc. (IAT)

will provide the city its SimDesk and SimMedia software in an attempt to

bridge the digital divide between those who have computer access and those

who do not. IAT signed a five-year, $9.5 million contract with Houston to

provide the service.

The program began as a pilot late last August and expanded to all Houston

libraries within a month after the pilot's launch. Now, Houston city employees

and residents — potentially 3 million users — will be able to download

and use the company's software for free. Users' documents will be compressed,

stored and encrypted on a secure server and can be accessed via the Internet.

SimDesk software includes word processing, spreadsheets, calendar and

contact management, e-mail, file management, backup utilities and remote

printing applications. SimMedia includes applications for presentation graphics,

instant messaging and video teleconferencing.

These applications run over the Internet and enable a single, secure

server to support millions of simultaneous users. Servers that could handle

only 100 users before now have the ability to take on thousands, said Ray

Davis, president and founder of IAT. "We have created a server that is available

for the masses," he said.

Wendy Haig, the chief executive officer of Global Strategy Corp., a

consulting company for IAT, said that the SimHouston project is critical

to solving the digital divide. Because the software is free of charge to

all residents of Houston, a simple Internet-enabled device is all that is

needed to access information from the SimHouston server. "If one has access

to the Internet, whether it's a PC or even a cell phone, information can

be retrieved from anywhere at anytime," she said.

The SimHouston project will make it easier to save and share information

on a secure server, and will also allow citizens to be prepared for times

of emergency, said SimHouston project manager Michael Chernoff.

"A great example of how the system works would be if your home PC were

to crash and all the information on your hard drive were to be erased without

any backup," he said. If you were continuously saving information on the

server, you could go next door to a neighbor's house and retrieve all that

lost information in a matter of minutes, he added.

According to Chernoff, Houston is saving about $7 million by implementing

the SimHouston project. Since the software can be run on almost any platform,

the city does not have to constantly upgrade its PCs, he said. Other savings

come from reduced maintenance, software licensing and training fees, Chernoff

added.

The SimHouston project "is a stepping stone for a national server that

will eventually connect the entire country," said Rob Enderle, a research

fellow for GIGA Information Group.

There is a lot of interest in this project from a significant number

of cities across the nation, Haig said. Another major city, which she declined

to name publicly, is nearing contract finalization, she added.

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