Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Could do MUCH better

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-10-17

I’ll give Chris Bowen a pass for his press release on an initiative to recycle old corporate PCs for use by the disadvantaged, but it’s a bare pass, because money is being wasted upgrading PCs to the latest version of Microsoft XP Pro and MS-Office 2003.

While this is all fine and dandy, the lack of details about other more cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and child-safe programs suggests that better initiatives aren’t getting appropriate government support.  Issues include:

  • Exposing kiddies to pr0n.
  • No recycling of computers from homes, so a large environmental problem is unaddressed, and value from working computers is destroyed.
  • Forcing financially disadvantaged families with limited computer literacy to pay big bucks for extra software packages.
  • Lack of tailoring to need (e.g. age-appropriate games and educational programs for particular families).

The reason that corporate PCs (rather than former home PCs) are used is that the resources required to run XP Pro and MS-Office are significant, and there is also the problem of licensing, especially if the former home PC ran pirated software.

Home PC’s, particularly the older ones, would be quite useful running any one of the "lightweight" linux distributions – indeed quite a few distributions are specifically written for old hardware: one of the popular distros for 10-year-old machines is Puppy Linux, even the PuppyPro edition loaded with office productivity tools running on a 500MHz, 192Mb RAM

This risks exposing financially disadvantaged kiddies, in families that cannot afford the price of software upgrades, or the bandwidth for constant patches to Windows required to lower the risk of malware infections, to scams, spyware and worse: pr0n.  Think of the children!

While this is fine, there was no mention of other, better, cheaper ways of providing PCs to disadvantaged homes, and no hint that those PCs would be tailored to the particular needs of the person(s) getting the PC.  If there was such a program, I’m sure the opportunity for spruiking the government’s efforts would mean it would have been mentioned in the press release.

Is there government support for a way of recycling older PCs that aren’t from corporates but from homes, don’t require licence fees for upgrades, and get every last drop of performance from old gear?  That’d be some form of Linux with OpenOffice… choosing an appropriate distribution for the hardware (hell, some distros even work on old 386 and 486 machines).  No need to upgrade memory, put in a DVD drive.

It wouldn’t take much to have a few different distros ready-to-go, with selections of software based on the capabilities of the computer involved and the needs of the family (Kids? add age-appropriate games and educational software).  Indeed, you could hand a pack of different distros with the PC in case the user wanted to try something different.

The other advantage comes from the possibility that the computers handed could have unlicensed software and/or be infected with malware.  A "wipe-everything" install of a linux would solve that problem, avoiding the need to check whether the donation included pirated software, and a possible obligation to inform the producers of that software.

Besides, are Centrelink clients likely to be able to afford the upgrades to Microsoft-based software, or even the bandwidth required to keep virus and spyware checkers up to date?  (And think of how some malware can display stuff inappropriate for young kiddies!)  Don’t we want them to be able to upgrade or add new software at zero cost to avoid funnelling money away from food and rent?

Environmentally responsible provision of cheap used PCs to disadvantaged folk would source as wide a range of old computers as possible, not just those from corporates.  Is the program merely a tax lurk?

Notes/See Also:

  • Damn Small Linux is what it says, basic web browsing, music playing and games run happily on an old 486 with 16Mb RAM.
  • DeLi Linux ("Desktop Light"),
  • There are other recycling programs with government involvement or promotion, including ByteBack (the link points to locations registered at, but that only pulls them apart (value destruction), and there are extremely few collection locations.

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