In praise of modular, "good enough" computing


Here are the key concepts of a great white paper.

The rest of this post is a series of quotes from a White Paper on Ecocomputing which also was the background for the “right way to build computers” that I presented yesterday. Titles and emphasis are mine.

What is stopping traditional manufacturers from producing the RIGHT products?

Why are there no truly environmentally-conscious yet desirable mass-volume products available, that both save people money, give them freedom of choice, allow them to upgrade the hardware on a rolling basis without throwing the entire product into landfill… oh, and as an incidental consequence reduce environmental impact? What is stopping the traditional manufacturers, both Western and Asian, from producing such products?

Initial analysis of the rapid development of computing over the past few decades brought us “Moore’s Law” - which states that the speed of computers doubles every 18 months. Recently, however, this empirical “law” has begun tailing off, but a much more fascinating empirical law has been found, by Professor Koomey. Using statistical analysis of the power of computers dating back to 1946 vs efficiency, Koomey observed that, in essence, for a particular (fixed) workload, the size of the battery you need will halve every 18 months.

So whilst many are chasing the “ever-faster” dream, seeking the fastest most powerful computer that they can afford, at some point, the speed of computers for everyday use has to - or had to - have been passed, at least by now, surely?

In praise of modular, "good enough" computing /img/reducing-e-waste-with-eoma68-modular-computing.jpg
The right way to REALLY reduce e-waste that too often ends up harming people: modular computers

Why not “good enough” computing?

Somewhere around 2009 the phrase “good enough computing” was used to refer to computers that, whilst not sufficiently powerful to fulfil the absolute latest and greatest specialist tasks,.. would basically “do the job”, for the majority of tasks that the average person would ever need. They could buy a computer now, in other words, and, as long as they didn’t need to do anything else, they could keep reading email, browse the internet, write documents and print them, watch films, listen to music, and chances are that the same computer would be there, on the same desk, gathering dust behind its cables, in three, possibly even five years time.

Of course…

Such people are a manufacturer’s nightmare. [and] he key problem of having a three to five year old computer is not so much that it can’t do the job it was designed to do: if the computer was not connected to the Internet it could continue to be used for its designated tasks until it suffered major component failure (possibly in 8 to even 15 years time).

The problem is that the kinds of web sites that most people visit and want to use are being designed with modern computers in mind. Even some recent smartphones are more powerful than high-end desktop computers of a decade ago.

But that’s not so much the real problem: the real problem is the inter-dependent nature of Software Development. Upgrading even just one application often brings in a set of dependencies that can result in the entire operating system needing an upgrade. And the longer the duration since a software upgrade, the less likely it is that one single application may be upgraded without huge impact and inconvenience. With no knowledge (or convenience) on how to upgrade software or hardware, most people pick the simplest solution:

Throw away a perfectly good computer. But what if people could upgrade…

… the main part of the computer (including its on-board Operating System) simply by pressing an “eject” button, and, within seconds, press in a new, faster upgrade? Apart from being able to upgrade both the hardware as well as the software, they would save money by not having to throw away the entire device, but also, if the “upgrade” didn’t do everything they wanted, straight away and perfectly, they could always press the button on the side and temporarily put the old computer back in the chassis.

The hard lesson, here, then, is to come up with a strategy that is both environmentally-conscious and saves people money. Interestingly, a modular design, where the main computing unit could be shared across multiple products, saving people over 40% of the cost of buying two computer devices, would achieve exactly that.

And the conclusion is that…

“It’s time to bring eco-conscious modular computing to a world market”.

To see how, read the full article.

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