posted by Howard Fosdick on Tue 15th Jun 2010 21:06 UTC
IconAll of us who use computers create a problem we rarely consider. How do we dispose of them? This is no small concern. Estimates put the number of personal computers in use world-wide today at about one billion. The average lifespan of a personal computer is only two to five years. We can expect a tidal wave of computers ready for disposal shortly, and this number will only increase. And as if that isn't challenge enough, there are already several hundred million computers out-of-service, sitting in attics and basements and garages, awaiting disposal.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, most computer and electronics waste in the United States is not disposed of properly. Some 85% goes into landfills or is incinerated. Much is exported to China, where it is "recycled" without regard to the environment or labor safety.

A problem of this scale can only be addressed by a set of coherent solutions. This article discusses one piece of the puzzle. If we simply keep computers in service for their natural lifespans -- rather than for the artificially-shortened lifespans promoted by some vendors -- we reduce the rate at which we must displose of them.

Better use of existing computers also conserves natural resources.  Making a single new computer requires:

  • A half ton of fossil fuels
  • One and a half tons of water
  • 48 pounds of chemicals
That's why your laptop is the most expensive electronic item per cubic inch in your house.

Finally, better use of existing computers makes it possible to get technology into the hands of the nearly one in four Americans do not own a personal computer. Not everyone can afford a new computer.

Vendors don't like this thinking. Many consider it heresy. The goal of any business is to produce and sell as many as you can as fast as you can. This is laudable. But this has been mutated into planned obsolescence, a system that encourages -- even forces -- premature computer disposal.

The computer industry wants you to view your computer as a disposable consumer device. But why toss out a perfectly good computer if it still meets your needs? And why should the computer industry dictate when your computer is obsolete? 

How Planned Obsolescence Works

I collect computers donated to charity for refurbishing or recycling. A quarter of the computers I receive are still perfectly usable. They merely have software problems that result from Windows deterioration.

Here are a few examples:

Hardware: Operating System:
Problem:



P-III 733 mhz
 
Windows ME
Disk consumed by Windows System Restore
P-III 933 mhz     
Windows XP
Disk consumed by Windows Update
P-IV 2.8 ghz 

Windows XP
Slow due to malware
P-III 1.2 ghz
 
Windows XP
Slow due to unneeded services, startups, and crapware
P-III 1 ghz
 
Windows XP
Damaged OS, user unable to fix, unreadable recovery CD
P-IV 2.4 ghz
 
Windows XP
Damaged OS, user unable to fix, vendor recovery software with OS image partition did not work for unidentified reasons


This is perfectly good computer hardware consigned to premature obsolescence. Windows needs to be tuned up, just like an automobile. Few users know this, so many discard good hardware. (This guide tells how to tune-up Windows systems to keep them in service.)

Microsoft bases its business on planned obsolescence. They leverage their monopoly to enforce it. Their goal is a win-win-win ecosystem where:
  1. Consumers win as Windows and Office improvements provide better and more functional computing
  2. Hardware manufacturers win as consumers must buy new hardware to obtain these improvements
  3. Microsoft wins as consumers buy new copies of Windows and Office along with their new computers 
Everybody Wins


Microsoft often achieves this trifecta marketing ideal. But whether it does or not -- and whether or not consumers wish to participate -- Microsoft leads the computer industry in an infrastructure of planned obsolescence. Here are just a few of the techniques employed:
  • The Registry and product activation technologies lock a Windows install to a particular computer, and further, to the specific hardware configuration of that computer when the OS is installed. This restricts in-place hardware upgrades. It also ensures you can not move a Windows boot drive and still use the product. These artificial constraints limit product flexibility and lifespan to drive sales. In contrast, Linux allows in-place hardware upgrades without constraint. You can move a boot drive to either drive position on the install computer or a different computer and still boot the system.
  • The Registry locks an installed application to a particular copy of Windows (and its bound hardware). It is Microsoft's control point. It stops you from moving software to a different folder, disk letter, physical drive, or computer without special tools. Open systems are more flexible. For example, often you can install individual products across duplicate systems merely by copying the product directories to the new computer(s).
  • Microsoft and other software vendors tie together upgrades of unrelated software products to force users along a path of unnecessary upgrades. This is why you find you must install a new release of Internet Explorer, for example, when you are installing a completely unrelated product. These "co-upgrades" are marketing driven.
  • Microsoft's changes to long-standing file formats for Microsoft Office files enhance their market control and force upgrades. Some will find it easier to upgrade Office than deal with the complexities of working with and supporting two different families of file formats, especially in companies that use multiple versions of Office.
  • Windows licensing restricts consumer user rights and software transferability in consumer EULA's. Software Assurance contracts similarly force corporate upgrades. Companies pay for software upgrades whether or not they choose to roll them out. Nor are they guaranteed Microsoft will release an upgrade during the contract term.
  • Many PC's today ship without an operating system CD. Instead they have a hidden disk partition with a backup image of the operating system or a recovery CD. I don't know whether this "innovation" is due to Microsoft's efforts or that of many major computer manufacturers. What I do know is that this limits the lifespan of the computer to the lifespan of its most vulnerable hardware component, the hard disk. Disk failure forces the user to buy a new retail copy of Windows, which probably costs more than the computer is worth at the time of the failure.
  • Hardware vendors eagerly support planned obsolescence by proprietarizing laptop and printer power adapters, ink cartridges, and even laptop optical drives with oddball form factors or connectors.
Finally, Windows' famous vulnerability to malware presents an insurmountable problem when it comes to keeping mature machines in service. Microsoft has terminated updates for many Windows XP and earlier systems. This effectively kills those computers because Windows requires security fixes. Moreover, the anti-malware overhead required to protect Windows computers compromises performance on processors operating at less than about a gigahertz.
Can't these working computers still be useful?

How Linux Helps

Mature hardware in good working condition can still be useful. What is needed is software that does not mandate undue resources or limit flexibility through artificial constraints.

This chart tells the story. While Windows requires more hardware resources in every release, current versions of Linux need much less:

Resources:
Windows XP:
    Vista:
Windows 7:
Ubuntu 10:
Puppy 4:






Processor:
P-III
P-IV
P-IV
P-III
P-II
Memory:
128 / 512 m
1 / 2 g
1 / 4 g
256 / 512 m
128 / 256 m
Disk:
5 g
40 g
20 g
5 g
1 g
Cost:
$ 199 - 299
$ 239 - 399
$ 199 - 319
$ 0
$ 0
Locks to Hardware:
Yes
Yes
Yes
No
No

Sources: websites for Microsoft, Ubuntu, and Puppy Linux, plus web articles and personal experience. Chart is simplified and details have been omitted for clarity. Microsoft offers many Windows editions, this chart addresses the most common. Microsoft prices are for full versions. In the Memory column, the first number for each system is generally considered the minimal realistic memory, while the second is the memory recommended for best performance. The Processor column is the minimal processor for reasonable performance. 


Microsoft's goal is for consumers to purchase new computers -- with new versions of Windows and Office -- on the schedule it dictates. Revenue targets drive this schedule. In contrast, functional requirements drive Linux. Not only does Linux require fewer resources for equivalent functionality and performance, it does not suffer the overhead of Windows' required anti-malware software.

The chart shows that the current version of the popular Ubuntu Linux, 10.04, requires computing resources on par with what Windows XP required when it was introduced nine years ago. Puppy Linux is one of several major Linux distributions specifically designed for mature hardware. It even renders serviceable machines in the 10 to 13 year old range. Among the many tricks it employs to ensure decent performance is to run the entire OS from memory on any machine having at least 256M. Puppy bundles a full range of applications and runs them on old equipment while being reasonably easy to use.

If Microsoft software drives obsolescence to promote sales, Linux presents a sound alternative. It is competitive, supported software with a full range of free applications. The open source mindset offers an alternative to the disposable-device mentality that litters our landfills and pollutes the environment.  Linux and open source keep older computers in service as long as their hardware still works and they support useful work.

Free Geek's Reuse Model

The computer refurbishing and recycling organization Free Geek Chicago embodies this alternative mindset. Free Geek is a group of loosely associated 501(c)(3) non-profits in about a dozen cities. Free Geek shows how Linux can be used to extend computer life while getting computers to those who might not have them otherwise. About one in four Americans do not own a personal computer. 

This chart illustrates Free Geek's reuse model:

Reuse Model

Computers of approximately ten years old or less are refurbished and reused. Older computers are de-manufactured into their constituent parts. Reusable parts are then used to build up resources on refurbished computers, or are put directly back into the community. Parts that can not be reused are segregated by material and environmentally recycled.

This model ensures that all parts are reused that possibly can be, while only broken or technologically obsolete parts are environmentally recycled. 

The model supports education and spreads computer access. Anyone is welcome to come to Free Geek and earn a free computer by participating in the organization. Volunteers normally start out in Teardown, which gives them a hands-on opportunity to see how computer components are connected and assembled. Eventually newcomers know enough to assemble their own computer, and they graduate to refurbishing and building computers. 

This reuse model presents compelling advantages:

1.  It addresses environmental problems by reusing when possible, and environmentally recycling when necessary
2.  It gets computers to those who need them at little or no cost
3.  It uses mature computers for hands-on education and computer literacy

Open source software is central to Free Geek's approach.  Not only is it free -- important to a non-profit with limited resources -- it's free of licensing restrictions and the headaches that go along with that. And it includes thousands of free applications beyond the full set bundled with the operating system itself. What could be better?

Free Geek typically installs Xubuntu Linux, a version of the popular Ubuntu system. This gives users all the advantages of Ubuntu -- its gigantic repository of free applications, its huge support community, and its vast array of free educational and tutorial resources. Xubuntu requires less memory than Ubuntu due to its lightweight graphical user interface.

How Old Can You Reuse?

If you're reading this article on a state-of-the-art dual-core computer, you might wonder: of what possible use could old P-IV's and P-III's be? The first chart in this article is, after all, representative of the kinds of donations we receive. 

The answer lies at the intersection of user requirements and machine capabilities. Any machine above 1 ghz -- running Linux -- plays video and flash fine and handles social networking. Any P-III or better offers word processing, spreadsheets, presentation graphics, web surfing, email, audio, text editing, chat and IM, image scanning and management, and more. 

With the right software, a single-core P-IV or P-III with adequate memory still supports the tasks most people perform today. I researched and wrote this article on a P-III running Ubuntu and Puppy, which I regularly use at a relative's house. It is her only computer.

Perhaps the best way to answer whether these computers are useful is to tell the story of a single mother of two who asked me for a computer. She was out of work and searching for a job. I felt badly that I had nothing to give her at that moment but a 400mhz P-II running Puppy Linux from its 256M of memory. Never was anyone so grateful for such a small gift! Now she could respond quickly to email from potential employers without taking the bus to the library every day. She could also research job leads when convenient to her at night. The old machine I gave her improved her life.

What You Can Do

If you have an unused P-IV or P-III, donate it to charity rather than letting it age into obsolescence in your attic or basement. Make sure you donate it to a refurbisher rather than to a recycler. Refurbishers reuse older equipment if possible, only recycling what they can not reuse. A recycler simply destroys your old computer in an environmentally responsible manner. The components (metals, plastics, glass, etc) are segregated and melted down for their material value. Most "vendor takeback" programs recycle rather than refurbish. They can't afford the labor cost to refurbish. Your goal should be to "reuse, then recycle."

When you look for a refurbisher, keep in mind the lax US laws regarding electronics waste. Some companies that say they reuse or recycle your old equipment are actually fake recyclers. They tell you they will recycle your donation, then export it to countries like China, where it is de-manufactured under unsafe conditions and without any regard to the environment. What these companies do is not "recycling" in any normal sense of the word. Programs like 60 Minutes, PBS Frontline, and BBC World News have exposed this scandal. Your tip-off to a fake recycler is that they accept CRT display monitors and printers without any fee. These items can rarely be reused and cost money to properly recycle.

Ask any refurbisher how old a computer they can reuse versus what they recycle. Free Geek reuses computers up to ten years old. The "secret sauce" is Linux. Most Windows refurbishers only reuse about five years back. Find your closest Free Geek affiliate here.

Social Impact

Linux is not only green in that it saves money, it's also environmentally green. Open source software extends the useful life of computers and reduces e-waste. It provides a crucial alternative to Microsoft's planned obsolescence business model. Linux enables mature computers to support education and computer access for those who need it when coupled with a good reuse model like that of Free Geek.

Linux and open source software have become popular for their flexibility, low costs, and utility. How many of us consider their beneficial social impact?


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Howard Fosdick is an independent consultant who specializes in databases and operating systems. He's been active in computer reuse and recycling as a hobby for the past fifteen years.

Resources

Free Geek Chicago Reuse and Recycling
Free Geek Reuse and Recycling
Electronics Take Back Coalition Ewaste information
Basel Action Network Fights fake recycling
Earth911 E-waste information
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency The EPA on "ecycling"
Microsoft's Refurbishing Programs
Refurbishing using Windows

Addendum: Microsoft's Refurbisher Programs

This article focuses on Microsoft's business model, which attempts to sell more computers by encouraging planned obsolescence. The goal is not to denigrate Microsoft but rather to explain how its business model shortens computer lifespans. Microsoft has a unique role in the industry due to its operating system monopoly, and many hardware and software manufacturers follow Microsoft's lead to their mutual benefit. This negatively impacts the environment, efficient resource usage, and consumers' wallets.

While driving planned obsolescence in the computer industry, Microsoft also supports computer reuse through its Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher (MAR) and Registered Refurbisher programs. These programs offer reduced-fee Windows XP and Office licenses to organizations that conform to Microsoft's program requirements. The emphasis has been on reusing computers less than five years old.

Member organizations have done a world of good in reuse and recycling. At the same time, the programs help Microsoft fulfill the "Prime Directive" of every monopoly -- maintain monopoly status in all market segments.

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