Is Neverware as Big a Deal as I Think It Is?

by Reihan Salam

I haven’t seen much conversation around Jonathan Hefter’s Neverware, and that surprises me. Ben Popper has written a fascinating report in the New York Observer on Hefter’s effort to radically extend the useful life of old hardware by making virtual desktops cheaper and more accessible:

“The virtual desktop solutions that most of the big corporations offer are too expensive and complex for schools to deploy,” says Rhoten. Hefter’s technology, by comparison, was cheap, worked with whatever computer the school already had and reduced the amount of oversight needed on a daily basis.

Take this case study offered by HP about how they helped St. Peter’s Anglican Primary School. In it they replaced 160 traditional PCs with 80 blade PCs and 90 thin clients. That costs approximately $100,000 and generates 2 tons of e-waste. Hefter solves the same problem with two “juiceboxes” powering the original 160 PCs. Cost = $20,000. E-waste = 0. 

It seemed too good to be true, so Rhoten spent the next few months trying to poke holes in Hefter’s project. “I brought in infrastructure guys to look at it, computing folks, people from school districts at both the local and federal level.” The response was always the same: this looks very promising, but there are a lot of people trying to do virtual computing with more experience and resources than this kid.

Rhoten eventually showed Neverware to an ex-Google engineer, who like everyone else, dismissed it at first. “I’ll never forget, about a week later this engineer emailed me up, it was on Thanksgiving day,” says Rhoten. “He said, I might have been wrong. I can’t stop thinking about Neverware. This might actually work.”

This is textbook disruptive innovation. Well, not quite. It’s not clear that Hefter is offering an inferior service to existing virtual desktops. Inferior perhaps in the sense that we don’t get the shmancier screens and keyboards when we save $80,000.

But consider how much we might save in IT budgets in the public sector if we relied on something like Hetfer’s juiceboxes.

Given that we live in an extremely loss-averse culture, it’s also worth noting that this will represent a real challenge to hardware manufacturers. If you fret about the offshoring of hardware manufacturing, well, you should be indifferent to this development, as it will presumably have a bigger job impact in low-cost manufacturing centers overseas. But if you believe that U.S. firms that design and brand new hardware will take a significant hit, you could see this as a serious source of dislocation and economic pain. And it should go without saying that IT professionals who skim off a lot of that $80,000 — private contractors who install new computer systems, etc. — will definitely take a hit. I nevertheless see Neverware as something that will allow us to do more stuff for less money, and that the short term dislocation isn’t something to worry about too much.

The really interesting thing is that there are Neverware-like innovators in many different domains, and one of the crucial political economy questions of our time is whether we will allow them to scale up and change the way we learn and work or not.