The (USB) Key to Reducing IT Waste by Peter Judge
Greening IT isn’t just about making data centers more efficient. Every so often I come back to other topics, like PC power management, and e-waste. Here’s a nifty idea I saw this week, which could keep old PCs out of landfill.
When PCs become obsolete they get replaced, but what happens to the old ones? They won’t run the latest Windows or Office versions, but they are very happy with a robust Linux, like Ubuntu or Mint, using the bundled applications and going to the cloud for everything else.
Old PCs can be useful in developing countries, shipped there by an outfit like ComputerAid (in the UK). Alternatively they can go locally, to people who don’t have the need or budget for a full-fat PC. I’m thinking of poor people or retired people. There are always people ready for a free PC, even an old one.
But there are two other problems. Firstly, PCs tend to lose their hard drives. Sensible businesses take them out and destroy them when they retire a machine to stop private data leaking to the next owner. It’s a serious data risk, since data wiping is not always effective.
So if you have a retired PC, it needs storage. Adding a hard drive to an old PC can be a problem (old-style IDE drives are now more expensive than new SATA drives). Suddenly the free PC is not free any more.
The answer is bootable USBs. Put the OS on a USB key, and use the local storage there. You don’t even need to go to the trouble of a full OS on the PC.The idea is being developed by a few people, and even Microsoft is playing with the idea for Windows 8.
One specialist in IT for elders, SimplicITy in the UK, has launched a £70 ($114) stick called HomeKey which includes a simplified user interface based on Mint, providing the most popular tasks and designed to get people who have never used a computer up and running. It also has 16G of storage.
There are plenty of reasons why this scheme may not take off. I’ve lost count of the cheap substitutes for Windows I’ve seen come and go. It ticks most of the right boxes, but there is a lot of inertia behind the status quo of over-buying, over-consumption and junk.
There are also real problems with establishing any new solution that can only start in small numbers without economies of scale. SimplicITY says that’s the reason for the comparatively steep price for free software on a cheap stick.
But check out the basics again. We have a surplus of usable-but aging computers, and a lot of healthy-but-aging people who could use them. Whether the business works or not, this is a practical answer.
I think - and hope - it could work.