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When it comes to hardware innovation, we need more progress on eco-materials

It used to be that the big high-tech companies would crow about this or that latest feature or speed enhancement when attempting to one-up their rivals. Now, the competitive posturing is just as like to be about energy efficiency as anything else.

It used to be that the big high-tech companies would crow about this or that latest feature or speed enhancement when attempting to one-up their rivals. Now, the competitive posturing is just as like to be about energy efficiency as anything else.

Case in point: technology giant Hewlett-Packard is out on the road right now trumpeting the fact that its current generation of products (and that includes everything from servers to notebooks to multifunction printers) is a least 50 percent more energy-efficient than they were five years ago.

What does that mean? Well, if you were to rip and replace every display, printer, PC or server that was shipped in 2005 and replace it with a current generation product, it would save an estimated $10.4 billion in energy costs. Or, to think about it another way, HP Vice President of Environmental Sustainability Engelina Jaspers says it would be the equivalent of taking 10 coal-fired power plants off the grid for a year.

Now, of course, companies aren't going to simply rip and replace all their IT for the sake of saving power. Let alone switch it over just for energy efficency features. But HP's achievement (which it managed nine months ahead of its original target of 40 percent efficiency) is worth thinking about for a moment, because it illustrates how dramatically product development priorities have shifted in just one product generation.

It also illustrates the need for better electronic waste management strategies, across the board, not just for consumers but for businesses that are getting rid of their old stuff. It also heightens my interest in the materials that are inside these new products. Are we moving quick enough to embrace new component technologies that are safer to dispose of at the end of their useful life. Or that can find a second life, if you will, in some other capacity?

Here's hoping that the next generation of product innovation from HP, Dell, IBM and the other IT hardware leaders will focus squarely on the physical impact of their products on the environment. I'm not hearing enough noise on that front yet.

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