Microsoft backs Digital Pipeline to Africa

Company claims its backing of a hardware re-use charity could mitigate the environmental impact of businesses dumping old PCs as part of Vista upgrades

Companies looking to dispose of old PCs in an environmentally friendly but secure way can make use of a new charity backed by Microsoft which sends refurbished computers to the developing world.

Digital Pipeline, launched on Wednesday, began life in 2004 and developed out of Microsoft's ICT-in-schools project, African Pathfinder. The charity aims to make better use of the 31 million PCs that research shows end up in landfill worldwide every year.

Not-for-profit Digital Pipeline acts as an umbrella organisation, bringing together charities that specialise in sending refurbished machines to Africa, such as the UK's Computer Aid, with businesses that are looking to dispose of their old PCs. Digital Pipeline also helps to connect potential recipients of donated PCs with donor organisations.

"We're trying to show UK businesses that they can make a real difference to the lives of people living in poverty by simply making better decisions when it comes to IT equipment that is being replaced," said Mark East, chairman of the board of trustees for Digital Pipeline and senior director of the education solutions group, Microsoft EMEA.

Answering the question of whether it's only right that Microsoft should be funding such a scheme, given that the hardware requirements of its latest operating system, Vista, will cause businesses to upgrade their PCs and retire functioning machines that can't cope, East claimed that there was an opportunity for all parties to win. "Vista is a more powerful operating system and requires more power and, as a result of that, Digital Pipeline can help companies to dispose of their old technology. Of course it is up to them to decide if they want to upgrade. If they do, we want to try and do the right thing and I think we can have a win-win situation here," he added.

In January, the Green Party criticised Microsoft over Vista for requiring more expensive and energy-hungry hardware and forcing companies to retire PCs as a result. "Future archaeologists will be able to identify a 'Vista Upgrade Layer' when they go through our landfill sites," the party claimed.

A survey in December by US IT services company Softchoice showed that, 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.

Digital Pipeline also announced that services company EDS has donated 30,000 PCs to the organisation, with the first machines due to be shipped to Kenya in July.

But, despite the backing of Microsoft and EDS, sending computers to developing countries is regarded as a questionable practice by some technology companies.

PCs that are sent back to Dell and HP as part of the vendors' individual take-back schemes are only sent on to recipients in the UK and Europe. Recycling managers in Dell and HP contacted by both claimed that sending PCs to the developing world could be used by some unscrupulous companies as a way of dumping unusable machines, which is why they avoid being involved with such schemes.

Digital Pipeline maintains that, for every computer it provides to Africa, it ensures that another is collected and recycled responsibly at the end of its "second life". East claimed that, although HP and Dell are not involved in any donations to developing countries at present, the reassurance provided by Digital Pipeline could eventually change that. "We hope the fact that we have this recycling process in place will help with that, but it's their choice whether they will do that or not," said East.

Digital Pipeline also provides an online tracking system so donors can find out where their PCs are during the process of refurbishment and being sent to the final location. "They know that there is an organisation that is separated from the deployment agency, such as Computer Aid and Digital Links, that is responsible for quality and that gives them confidence and encourages them to donate their PCs," added East.

Microsoft has so far funded the organisation to the tune of around $1bn (£490m), according to East, but the organisation will also generate some operating income from minimal fees which are charged to the recipient organisations for processing and delivery.

However, despite the influence Microsoft has had on the scheme, East claims that the software giant does not insist that refurbished machines come pre-installed with Windows or Office. The operating system that is present on the system before it goes through the refurbishment process is the one that is re-installed before it is sent out, he claims. "To get charitable status, we have to jump through hoops on that. As I am chairman on the charity, I have responsibilities that are enforced through law that I can't favour Microsoft in my work with the charity," said East.


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