Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Is Microsoft Windows to blame for an unnecessarily high amount of e-waste?

One of the unpleasant and infrequently discussed side effects of the worldwide information technology revolution is the enormous amount of electronic waste that has been generated by the collective buy it, use it, and junk it mentality that pervades society, especially American society.

When personal computers were first invented in the 1970s, not that many people owned one. Today, personal computers are ubiquitous, along with smartphones, music players, and an array of other gadgets which are commonly referred to as peripherals. Computers and peripherals are fragile, complex instruments, and they inevitably either break down after they've been used for a while, or they become considered obsolete... even if they still work just fine.

Rapid developments in technology have only bolstered the preexisting notions that serve as the tenets of our throw-away culture. What is considered "state of the art" one day may be seemingly outdated by the next day.

Consequently, e-waste has become a big problem - one that states such as Washington have only begun to address with new recycling laws.

Such laws have been enacted thanks to the tireless work of many environmental organizations who have been trying to keep computers and peripherals (as well as their toxic parts) out of landfills.

Recycling laws are crucial and needed. But the conversation about this issue needs to be about more than merely addressing symptoms (how to dispose of gadgets after they are no longer wanted). We should be thinking and talking about the causes (how gadgets become unwanted in the first place.)

One of the reasons computers and peripherals get junked is because people can't get them to work properly. For example, a printer that won't print is no longer useful. And often it's cheaper to go out and buy a new printer than to exert the energy required to get the printer working again.

Many of the problems that lead to nonworking peripherals are caused by software. Choice of operating system thus becomes very relevant to this problem, because an operating system that doesn't reliably communicate with peripherals could result in discarded gadgets. Let's go back to the printer example.

I have sitting on my desk a nice little HP OfficeJet all-in-one that is several years old. When I bought it, the latest version of Microsoft Windows was Windows XP. To get the HP OfficeJet to print and scan properly, I had to install the included device drivers from the included compact disc. (A driver is a piece of software that allows computer programs to interact with hardware components).

Hewlett-Packard's installation wizard took, as I recall, what seemed like the better part of an hour to finish. I had to wait to plug in the USB cable until I was prompted to, which meant I had to sit there and watch the wizard's slow progress until I was needed. After I had successfully installed the drivers, my printer functioned correctly for a few years, until one day, it suddenly stopped working. I was unable to open the HP control panel or do any scanning from my computer.

Some investigation revealed that an update to Windows XP had caused HP's badly engineered software (which relied on some outdated Windows components to function) to quit working. On top of that, the printer's scan drivers somehow broke down, so I was unable to do any scanning at all from my computer.

I ended up hooking the OfficeJet up to an older desktop computer running Windows 2000, and I managed to figure out how to get Windows to share printers so that I could print to the OfficeJet from my primary machine.

I ended up expending quite a bit of time and energy just getting my printer to work again, when I could have just gone out and bought another inexpensive inkjet to take the OfficeJet's place. But I didn't see a reason to replace the OfficeJet since I knew perfectly well that there was nothing wrong with it.

I doubt that most people would do the same. When a peripheral refuses to work, the easiest solution for non-techies is typically to go and get a replacement. That's not so big of an issue if a product is new... take it back to the store and get an exchange or a refund. But once the thirty day returns period is past, the warranty is expired, and the company is no longer making the model... there's a temptation to just do away with it altogether.

Like many Windows users, my problems with peripherals have not just been limited to printers. At various times, the drivers for my computer dock, keyboard, mouse, and card readers have all malfunctioned, and it has taken extensive troubleshooting to get them working again. I've spent enough time trying to solve driver problems to appreciate how cumbersome Microsoft Windows truly is.

Since I began having trouble with my OfficeJet, Microsoft has released Windows Vista and is now readying the release of Windows 7, Vista's successor. HP, however, has not bothered to release a new driver that would make the OfficeJet fully compatible with any version of Windows beyond XP. HP also does not have a driver that would allow my OfficeJet to be hooked up to a machine running Windows Server 2003 or Windows Server 2008.

So even if I wanted to make it possible to print centrally to the OfficeJet from a server without "printer sharing", I couldn't. Not using Windows.

As a consequence of not being able to print the OfficeJet directly, I had hardly been using it, because having an older desktop on constantly just so a printer can be on standby seemed like a waste of energy.

But recently I started using GNU/Linux, or more specifically, the Debian-derived Ubuntu distribution of GNU/Linux. With Linux, adding peripherals - like my trusty OfficeJet - is a breeze. There's no compact discs to insert, no executables to run, no wizards to go through. That's because there are no device drivers to install. They're already present in the distribution.

When I plugged in my OfficeJet, it was instantaneously recognized, and that was it. There was nothing more for me to do. I could print or even scan immediately using the printer's full capabilities. The open source drivers are so intelligent they can even display notifications from the OfficeJet (like a low ink warning).

For someone used to the trouble of setting up hardware in Windows, this experience was unbelievably cool. Now I no longer chuckle when I see the term plug and play, because with Linux, that phrase really does describe how easy it is.

Not all hardware works with Linux, of course, but there are fewer and fewer exceptions these days. The Linux Foundation maintains a database of supported printers, for example, which is pretty big. Chances are, if you've got old peripherals lying around, Linux will be able to recognize them.

If everyone used Linux, people would likely hang on to their peripherals longer, because printers and gadgets wouldn't be constantly breaking down due to unreliable proprietary software. That, in turn, would result in less e-waste.

The same goes for computers. Upgrading a machine to use the next version of Windows is widely considered to be a pain. It's easier to wipe a hard disk and start over, or, even more commonly, to just buy a new computer which comes with Windows preinstalled. Doing so negates a messy upgrade procedure and the need to buy a CD or DVD in a box. But it also means getting a whole new machine.

If everyone used Linux, far fewer people would feel compelled to go out and buy new computers when a new version is released, because upgrading a Linux distribution isn't difficult. The Update Manager reports that there's a new release available, and a few clicks later, the Linux distribution is busy upgrading itself.

Not long after, the computer restarts itself and comes back up running the new version. That's all there is to it.

The lesson is that great software makes almost any hardware last a lot longer. My OfficeJet is no longer supported by HP, and it won't work properly with Windows. But Linux has given it new life, which means I won't have to replace it for years. And that means less e-waste. What a happy thought.


Blogger e-Waste UK said...

This is one of the most insightful comments I have read in some time. A good connection between software and e-Waste which I will do a bit more thinking about. Thanks Andrew.

July 7, 2009 5:53 AM  
Blogger Toby Miller said...

Great stuff. You might want to take a peek at some of the links I have at which is dedicated to media and IT electronic waste



July 7, 2009 5:32 PM  

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