How green was my Vista?

Using Vista to underpin a new generation of green PCs is like building a hybrid car out of a Humvee
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor on

Of the many claims made for Vista, its promised credentials for green computing rank with the most fanciful. Yet that's never stopped a marketing department, and so we were treated to just such a proposal last week from the computer reseller PC World.

Trying to create the world's most environmentally friendly PC is in itself an interesting, if curiously complex, idea. Apart from Fujitsu Siemens' Esprimo range, few of the big brands have taken on such a task. Dell and HP have had recycling schemes in place since the late 1990s but haven't done much in the way of creating PCs that use less energy or can be disposed of more easily. Price and the upgrade cycle, rather than sustainability, have always been the main forces shaping PC production.

Closer inspection of PC World's announcement does little to persuade that the usual status quo has shifted at all. Despite a confident opening where the company talks about sustainability, carbon neutrality and recycling, the details of what will happen are missing. The only real commitment in the press release is that the company plans to build its greenest PC around Microsoft Vista.

This is as smart as building a hybrid car around a jet engine. A survey by US IT services company Softchoice last year showed just how power hungry Vista will be. At Windows XP's launch, for example, the minimum CPU requirements were 75 percent greater than those for the operating system it replaced, Windows 2000. Vista's minimum CPU requirements are 243 percent larger than that of XP. Of 113,000 desktops checked from over 400 US organisations, 50 percent of the machines wouldn't be able to meet the basic Vista requirements. Around 97 percent wouldn't be sufficiently high spec to run the "premium" requirements. An operating system that demands wholesale disposal of perfectly functional computers? The only green aspect of that is the colour of anyone naive enough to swallow it.

So why on earth is PC World using this OS as the basis for a green machine, when desktop Linux or any previous Microsoft OS would have been an altogether saner choice? Microsoft has been pushing the new power management aspects of Vista, which it claims should make it easier for users and IT departments to put their PCs to sleep when not in use. With Windows XP it was relatively easy for third-party applications to override a user's PC sleep settings. But with Vista, Microsoft claims that...

...new sleep options will let businesses wake machines to install security updates, while letting them remain in the power-saving mode the rest of the time. IT managers can also have more central control over power management with Vista via a group policy tool. Microsoft has claimed that by putting six PCs to sleep, businesses can save the same amount of carbon emissions that would otherwise require an acre of trees to be absorbed.

Power management is a welcome innovation, but it doesn't compensate for the amount of energy and other resources needed to make a whole new world of computers. In many cases the discarded machines will be perfectly serviceable, but just not able to run Vista. Millions of machines discarded for an OS that has seen the vast majority of its unique features abandoned in the development process — and one whose main claim to fame is that it's prettier.

Trying to slap a thin veneer of green around the Vista brand probably seemed like a good plan to Microsoft and PC World execs, but this particular marketing strategy seems to have backfired. Vista may be a lot of things, but green is not one of them. Likewise, PC World, which is depending on the power-hungry OS to be a success, seems an unlikely candidate for the kind of creative thinking required to create a genuinely sustainable PC.

Arguments over marketing aside, the fundamental problem with the PC World announcement is that the sustainable PC is not one product — it's a strategy. We all own a sustainable, green PC — it is the one we use every day. Keeping hold of it for an extra year or two would do as much or more for the environment than creating an entirely new green PC. Getting to grips with the existing power-management systems and learning how to use the off switch on existing systems would do likewise. Online tools — such as Google Docs — are reducing the need for gargantuan local applications and the operating systems needed to run them. This does move some of the problem to the immense server farms that host remote applications — such as Google's plant in The Dalles — but that is another issue and one that virtualisation and economies of scale can affect.

We do need a cleaner, more sustainable generation of computers to upgrade to, but that will require cross-industry co-operation rather than what may be the best intentions of one reseller. Until that happens, learning how not to upgrade may sound trite and unrealistic, but it's the only real quick-fix available for anyone serious about implementing a sustainable IT strategy.

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