I read an article on CNN a couple days ago about Linux and ewaste reduction. It wasn't until I spent far too long shoveling my driveway tonight, though, that I had time to give the article any thought. At first blush, it seems to be another ringing endorsement of Linux. Free, open source, and with the power to save the earth, besides? I should be jumping up and down, right?
I'm not, though, and here's why. The article quotes a 2004 study (does CNN realize how long 3 years is in computer years?) highlighting the ways in which converting computers to Linux can reduce electronic waste:
A UK government study in late 2004 reported that there were substantial green benefits to running a Linux open source operating system (OS) on computers instead of the ubiquitous Windows OS, owned by Microsoft. The main problem with Windows users was that they had to change their computer twice as many times as Linux users, on average, thereby effectively creating twice as much computer-generated e-waste...
"Industry observers quote a typical hardware refresh period for Microsoft Windows systems as 3-4 years; a major UK manufacturing organisation quotes its hardware refresh period for Linux systems as 6-8 years."
Not only is the presented evidence somewhat flawed (I'll hand this one to the Microsoft fanboys on a silver platter: the folks who play with Linux, especially back in 2004, are the kind of people who will keep old computers around anyway, discarding them only when they can no longer double as firewalls, web proxies, etc.; I'm one of them), but it presents a dangerous standard for bean counters.
Linux may mean free in terms of software, is certainly ecofriendly since software is downloaded instead of packaged, and can be made to run very lean (look at Mandriva on the Intel Classmates, the Sugar OS on the OLPC XO, and recent advances in KDE, to name a few). It's safe to say that most distributions will at least run tolerably on aging hardware (better than Vista, at least). However, Linux doesn't magically make old, broken hardware run like new. Hardware still ages and it still breaks. It can't be made to run indefinitely, just because some geek decided to run Linux on it.
Most importantly, it isn't an excuse for administrators to stretch my hardware lifecycles to 8 years, just because some British hardware company says it's doable. We still need reasonable lifecycles of 3-4 years, regardless of OS. I would still rather spend my time teaching kids to use computers as powerful tools, rather then spend time tinkering with hardware to keep it alive beyond its normal lifespan.
Can Linux save the planet? I don't think so. Can Linux save you money? Probably, if it's rolled out and supported correctly. It, like any other OS, though, will be the most effective tool for students on reasonable hardware. 7-year old Dell rejects don't count. just what I need - an excuse for administrators to make me stretch lifecycles to 6 years. That's always fun.