Software has a hard impact on the planet

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      These days, environmentally conscious folks are eating locally, conserving water, and reducing air travel. But have you thought about the impact of your computer usage on the planet?

      Computers contain toxins such as mercury, cadmium, and beryllium. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, computers make up much of the 20 million to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste produced annually worldwide.

      Surprisingly, software may be a key factor in computer waste. That’s because of planned obsolescence, the process by which companies design computer products to become less useful over time. This results in you having to purchase new software and replace hardware more often than you’d like. For instance, in order to take full advantage of the graphical features of Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system, a user may need to upgrade to a computer that’s powerful enough—new enough—to display them.

      Between 1997 and 2005, the average life span of computers in developed countries fell from six years to two, according to Greenpeace.

      Some, like Ifny Lachance, advocate a shift away from proprietary software and toward free and open-source software in order to counteract this trend.

      Lachance, cofounder and coordinator of Free Geek Vancouver, knows firsthand the relationship between proprietary software and e-waste. Every month, her computer reuse and recycling centre takes in 25 tonnes of discarded computer hardware.

      “Software and hardware manufacturers have a very cynical approach when it comes to designing things to go obsolete,” Lachance said. “It’s a great short-term way to make a profit, but in the long term of our species it’s totally irresponsible.”

      Manufacturers consider the source code of proprietary software—like the Windows and Mac operating systems—a trade secret. When you buy the software, you’re really just purchasing the right to use it.

      In contrast, free and open-source software entitles a user to many rights. Users of free software have the freedom to run it for any purpose, modify it, and copy and redistribute the software in original or modified forms. With open-source software, such as the Mozilla Firefox Web browser and the Android operating system, users can tinker with the source code and collaborate with others to improve the software.

      Speaking by phone from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Richard Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, told the Georgia Straight, “Proprietary software is an injustice, and our movement is to put an end to that.” The iconic software developer’s ideals of collaboration helped bring about the GNU/Linux operating system, a free-software alternative to Windows.

      Explaining the difference between free and open-source software, Stallman said that “open source was formulated as a way of talking about mostly the same software, but without mentioning an ethical issue—it closes its eyes to the question of freedom versus the dictatorship of the developer.”

      If using proprietary software means throwing out computers to accommodate new versions, using more free and open-source software may be part of the solution. Compared with proprietary software, these alternatives tend not to up their system requirements as much with each release. So, you can start off with an older computer, upgrade less often, and produce less e-waste in the process.

      But Edin Terzo, a Seattle-based software developer who’s working on the next version of Microsoft Office for Mac, argues that proprietary software isn’t entirely to blame for junked computers. He said new versions of programs are sold because there is demand for them.

      Software is used by customers who, in most cases, are not as technologically inclined as its developers, Terzo explained. He noted that proprietary software is appealing to users because each program offers “one solution with one purpose”.

      Regarding obsolescence, Terzo said that, from the consumer end, “there is this need for more services and more products to be delivered at an ever-faster rate.”

      Cloud computing is one trend that may lead to a reduction in the need to upgrade hardware. This concept describes the growing use of applications that are hosted remotely. One major example of this is Google’s Gmail, which is accessed through a Web browser, in contrast to Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail program, which must be installed on a user’s computer.

      “For the average user, there will be convergence in technology, where you don’t need to have applications,” said Hasan Cavusoglu, an assistant professor in management information systems at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Everything will be done through a Web browser.”

      At Free Geek’s East Vancouver location (1820 Pandora Street), you can get a repurposed computer—built with used computer parts—for less than $100. These computers can easily handle Web-browsing, multimedia, and even business applications—all using free and open-source software.

      And if Web-based applications take over as Cavusoglu predicts, you may not have to upgrade your computer as often, since your machine will handle less of the processing. Indeed, you may never again have to buy new versions of off-the-shelf software, more random-access memory, or additional hard drives. But you’d better have a kick-ass Internet connection.




      Apr 16, 2009 at 6:16pm

      Does Ifny Lachance get computers from Dell, HP and others that are doing the, "trade in the old on a new computer", deal.

      If Dell is trashing good old computers I'd better start trashing them. Good old Dell computers with the latest Linux on them might help some Somali Pirate into newer broader pastures.

      Is it even ethical to throw away a perfectly good computer when 1/2 of the world, which can't afford any computer, could benefit from them.

      john frey

      Apr 18, 2009 at 11:14am

      Edin Terzo's comments might be valid. He is working on Microsoft Office and that just makes them laughable. Office software has reached a point where "advances" are dubious and foisted on users who mostly want to stay with what they know. It's certainly good when developers make advances in the underlying workings (backend) that speed things up, make them more compatible on large networks or improve the collaberation abilities. It's also good when bugs are removed from older versions and things that were included but did not work now do work.

      There is a real lack of demand for software with new interfaces that require the user to learn new ways to do the same old things. Sure, some changes create a better, more efficient user interface but mostly they don't.

      Microsoft loves to tell you their latest software is a response to customer demand but mostly it's hardware manufacturer demand that drives the software to use increased resources. So the customer is Dell or HP demanding new versions so they can sell new computers to people who have already working software and hardware.

      Free Software developers have made software with transparency, animations and more using a fraction of the hardware requirements that Micrososft software requires to do the same thing. Even Mac desktops use more resources to do exactly the same things that Free Software does.

      Randall Ross

      Apr 20, 2009 at 11:01am

      It's a shame you didn't acknowledge Ubuntu.

      Ubuntu is the free (as in freedom) operating system that rescues FreeGeek's computers. Ubuntu Vancouver assists FreeGeek by offering regular seminars free of charge, as well as free troubleshooting help for the general public.

      It's admirable for you to draw the public's attention to socially responsible software and its resultant positive environmental impact. Unfortunately, by failing to mention Ubuntu, and by mentioning GNU/Linux only once (and only in passing) an opportunity was missed. Tragically, you mentioned proprietary software from "Redmond WA's predatory monopolist" five times.

      Help us raise public awareness. Don't plug proprietary software at all, even if it's to point out how unbelievably bad it is for society.

      ... and please tell everyone you know about Ubuntu Vancouver.

      samah El Saied

      Apr 23, 2009 at 4:27pm

      Hi Wael,
      Well done!!!!!!!!!! I really liked it, but why do you insist on writing such scientific articles? Is it a scientific magazine? I know that you came from a scientific backgroung and that science was the subjec of your study, still it's very heavy(sometimes I miss the point), anyway it's a good job and you should be proud of yourself. Well done again.


      Apr 24, 2009 at 9:34am

      I wonder carlleigh, that if people just thought more about how much e-waste they create (throwing out cell phones, pdas, computers and so on), that it would benefit us all. Perhaps we should be making better use of a product before discarding it for the next glimmering new gadget.

      But john frey, no one can be blamed for having something foisted upon them. The user also has a say in this. Regardless of what Microsoft Office does or does not do to please its customers—it us ultimately up to the individual to decide if it is right for them. If it is not, then there are other options, if it is, then people must decide for themselves.

      Yes, hardware manufactures do appear to be in collaboration with proprietary software developers, but this doesn’t change the fact that if one wanted to look for alternatives to this paradigm, one could find them.

      Though I have read various times that Ubuntu is Free Software Randall Ross, according to Stallman it is not, and you can follow this link for more details on the Free Software Movement and GNU/Linux distros that are entirely free:

      According to Stallman, the operating system gNewSense came from striping Ubuntu of its non-free parts.

      Hi samah, it’s been a long time. I’m glad you liked the article. Drop me an email when you get a chance.


      Apr 28, 2009 at 7:59pm

      These are Richard Stallman’s comments:

      If one starts by assuming that Windows and GNU/Linux are equally legitimate, it is natural to conclude that users should know about both and choose between them according to their convenience.

      The error is in the premise: proprietary software is not legitimate, because it put the developer in a position of power over the users.

      For instance, Windows and MacOS are proprietary software, and each is under the sole and total control of its developer. If you use these systems, the developer has total control of your computer, too. And how do Microsoft and Apple employ this power? Each has installed malicious features to restrict users, and each has implemented a back door so it can change the software without asking the user's

      If you want to live in freedom, insist on freedom from the outset. Free software puts the users in control. Even if you are not a programmer, it is safer to depend for a program on a whole community of programmers who are also its users, than to be at the mercy of any single developer.

      Randall Ross

      May 3, 2009 at 10:00am

      Following up on "Though I have read various times that Ubuntu is Free Software Randall Ross, according to Stallman it is not..."

      Thanks for the clarification, Wael. I'm aware of the difference. The "stock" Ubuntu from Canonical does contain "proprietary blobs" as does the Linux kernel itself. Usually (and with effort) they can be removed or one can simply install an Ubuntu-based variant, which you mention above.

      My intent was to point out the bias in reporting towards proprietary software (accidental or not), specifically that from the convicted monopolist, and not to necessarily debate the intricacies of software licensing in the free software universe.

      Had your original article contained more than a passing reference to GNU/Linux, and perhaps a mention of one or two variants that you consider acceptable, then my original comment would have largely been unnecessary. Thank you for clarifying later though. Unfortunately and sadly, most of the public won't see your follow-up comments.

      I hope to see an article (in print) that is devoted to software freedom soon. Maybe some of Stallman's thoughts above would be a start?


      May 5, 2009 at 1:16pm

      Interesting article. Though for clarification to one of the commentors, Ubuntu or Xubunto (or any other distro) are not an OS; but a DE overtop of the Linux kernel and associated OS files. One issue with opensource software that I see (I use a Mac, by the way) is the relative complexity to install it and or update it. Building from source code and then updating it is a nightmare for most users of free systems; TGZ or RPMs or related bundling setups for application installation improve things only marginally. Ubuntu may have a good repository for application/component upgrade; but I would suggest that if geeks want the average person to use Linux and to not feel intimidated by it, a single (or at most two) installation mechanism needs to be developed for all distros. Also, the geek nature of Linux and the attitude that still pervades the Linux community (when last I checked) make it's uptake less likely than the closed source OSes offer. Mac isn't perfect; but I prefer it to the headaches of Windows (app uninstalls, virii or malware) or Linux (upgrading this library or not being able to upgrade this app because it needs file X; but file X conflicts with the version needed by another programme).

      Former Mac User

      May 18, 2009 at 2:51pm

      Ubuntu has solved the complexity issue. I know dozens of people that are not "computer types" and that use Ubuntu in their everyday lives. No tgz, rpm, TLA's or FUD. I'm a former Mac user and there was a point in time where I would have argued the same for Macs. Ubuntu uses a simple installer application to add/remove software and it's all GUI based. You'll never need to deal with libraries and other nonsense again.

      Mark G

      May 19, 2009 at 6:14pm

      It is consumer demand that drives the requirement for newer, 'kooler', hardware and software. Developers only develop stuff that consumers will use (either free or purchased) - that's the point.
      Coming back to the main premise of this article, does this mean we should also trash our HD TVs, LCD screens, surround-sound stereos and cable boxes in the cause of saving energy and being 'greener'? Consumers are driving the demand for these goods as much as the commercial organizations developing them.
      Should we revert to wooden wheels and candlesticks? I think not...