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03/29/2004 Archived Entry: "Recycled computers"

What did I say before about how nice it is to have government flunkies issue your self-serving blather? Ten U.S. Representatives have written to the EU about their treatment of Microsoft. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that five of them -- or was it eight? -- received contributions from Microsoft. (I'm never astonished when politicians are bought, but always astonished by how cheaply they're bought.)

Now to continue a theme from my last posting. Here's an action you can take where frugality, environmental awareness, privacy, consumer activism, and independence all happily combine: the next time you're ready to buy a new computer, don't.

No, I haven't turned Luddite or eco-freak. The simple fact is, most people buy far more computer than they need, and they upgrade far too often. The computer industry has embraced the "planned obsolescence" model once loved by Detroit, and you are being played for a sucker.

A case in point: an acquaintance of mine buys a new computer every year. He always has to have the latest and greatest, so right now he's running a 2.5 GHz Pentium IV with 512 MB of RAM, an ultra-gee-whiz video card, gargantuan hard drive, and I forget what all else...and Windows XP, of course. And he's always complaining to me about getting his hardware to work properly.

His one computer cost more than our last five. Sixteen months ago I succumbed to an upgrade: I bought a used 400 MHz Pentium II to replace my (then) five-year old 166 MHz Pentium. I have an "ordinary" video card and a 17" monitor I bought for $90 Canadian. I've since bumped it up to 192 MB of RAM to support Xandros Linux; but the only speed problem I have is our dial-up Internet connection (which a faster computer won't fix).

So here are some reasons to keep your older computer, or to buy a "recycled" computer, and to run last year's (or last-few-years') software:

1. Frugality. As I've already said, you can save a lot of money by buying a used or "recycled" computer. Models a few years old are constantly being dumped on the market by companies that get suckered into upgrades, or when they come off-lease. Better still, keep your old computer running for a few more years. With a few exceptions, computers don't wear out like automobiles; if given minimal care, a computer should last a decade.

The exceptions: one part that wears out (in our computers at least) is the cooling fan. Most computers have two -- one in the power supply and one on the CPU -- and when their bearings go the computer starts to make moaning or whining sounds. In my experience, "major label" computers tend to use better-quality fans which last longer. Don't worry if you have a bargain computer; fans can be easily replaced. The next most common points of failure are keyboards and monitors, which are even easier to replace. Hard drives can eventually fail, but I haven't had that happen yet...I have a 6-year old drive in my PC right now. And if you need to your expand your RAM for some application, it may actually be cheaper to replace the computer.

2. Privacy and security. New computers come with new software, and that usually means Windows, and that means Microsoft's draconian End User License Agreement. I've mentioned before how with this EULA you give Microsoft permission to read the data on your computer, add software to your computer, and remove software from your computer, all without your knowledge or specific consent. I've also mentioned how Windows reports what DVDs you're watching and what other software you've purchased... and for all I know, what web pages you're viewing. Every new generation of Windows infringes more of your privacy. So if you must use Windows, use an older version.

Every new generation of Windows also comes with a new set of security vulnerabilities. To fix the notorious "port 137" flaw, MS introduced the more egregious port 445 flaw. Most of the exploits I hear about attack the newer versions of Windows (2000, 2003 Server, and XP). While the older products had lots of vulnerabilities, they're now pretty well known, and fixes or filters or firewalls exist to protect them. (An acquaintance who manages many MS computers prefers Windows 98 Second Edition to all other versions.)

3. Independence. The marketing model for the future is software-by-subscription, where you have to pay a regular fee to Microsoft to keep your software up-to-date, or even to keep it functioning. (If you don't pay, they remotely deactivate our software. Even now, if you upgrade your hardware, Windows may choose to deactivate itself.) If you upgrade, you surrender your computing independence.

The exception: you can upgrade your hardware, as long as you keep your old software. (Try to get the installation disc when you buy a computer, rather than a pre-installed OS.) And you can upgrade a "software libre" operating system like Linux or Unix, where you're not tied to a vendor and privacy is respected. (Sorry, I don't know what the situation is with Macs.)

4. The environment. Not a huge motivator for me, but it will be for some people. The plain fact is, computers don't dispose well. They're not biodegradable, and they contain lots of toxic elements. So you're doing the environment a favor if you reuse or recycle old computers.

The corollary to this: if you're really going to upgrade, try to find a home for your old computer. Give it to your kids, or an impoverished friend, or to charity. (Alas, our local Salvation Army won't take anything less than a Pentium these days. Heck, I still have a '286 in service.) And rather than throw it in the dump, look for outfits (or enterprising hobbyists) who will strip and recycle the usable bits, and responsibly dispose of the rest.

5. Consumer activism. I'm tired of Microsoft running roughshod over consumers, competitors, and developers, and producing shoddy products that pollute my email with viruses. As I've said before, the government will do nothing for you -- the feds are inept and out-of-date, and Microsoft is busy lobbying and buying special treatment. The only thing that will make a difference is individual consumer action.

Microsoft fears the "just good enough" phenomenon -- people buying the computer and software that's just good enough for their needs. If people stop buying the latest bells and whistles, and instead focus on software that works well and meets their needs, the Microsoft endless-upgrade cycle collapses. Then the pressure will be on for MS to compete on lower price or improved quality, rather than customer lock-in.

By using an older computer and an older OS, I'm making a consumer statement. (Actually the statement I'm making these days is something like "Up yours, Bill.") That may not motivate others, but it gives me a warm feeling.

So...if you feel the need to upgrade your computer, give it some hard-nosed analysis. What do use your computer for? Precisely what does your existing computer not provide? Can your existing computer be upgraded? If not, do you need the Latest Thing, or will last year's computer do the job? Will last year's software do the job?

And if you do upgrade to a new computer, take the time to choose one that will last. Even if you can't do electronic maintenance yourself, there's no reason your computer shouldn't meet your needs for five years or more.


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