It has become a routine part of any given week to hear from IT companies about "green" innovations - products or prototypes designed to have less of an effect on the environment.
Companies of all sizes and types are part of this trend and besides developing greener products, they also are more focused internally on operating with greater energy efficiency, cutting their own costs and reducing the "carbon footprint" they leave. What follows are just two examples, one from the large Xerox, and the other from the small Userful.
In the case of Xerox, the New York-based company announced a new type of paper that is more environmentally friendly. With Userful, the news was that the company figured out how much one of its products cuts in CO2 emissions, putting concrete figures on an environmental component to its software.
'Breakthrough' printing paper saves trees, costs less
Ask Bruce Katz how long it took Xerox to develop its new High Yield Business Paper, which uses less wood pulp, water and chemicals to manufacture, and he laughs and says "about 30 years".
The project manager for paper design and quality, "paper technologist" for short, Katz has been with Xerox for 27 years and throughout that time the company has talked periodically to newsprint makers about designing better newsprint, but none of them was ever interested in taking the idea beyond that step until October 2006.
Once his paper team got rolling with the idea, it was on the market fairly quickly, with the company taking orders for the new product now. The new paper is made using a mechanical pulping process, which is the method for making newsprint and offset-printing paper common for directories, catalogues and flyers.
It's not archival quality, isn't suitable for inkjets, and shouldn't be used for documents that are meant to be kept for a long time or that are official, such as contracts and the like, but it's fine for transactional jobs such as printing up invoices or for use in ordinary office black-and-white printing.
Xerox says that the paper is the first of its kind that works reliably in digital printers and copiers, partly because it doesn't curl.
The paper comes from a mill using hydroelectricity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75% compared to other mills. The paper also weighs less than paper made using traditional chemical processes, so it comes with about 10% more pages per pound, making it less costly to ship and mail, and less expensive in cost overall. Comparatively, it's about 5% less than the company's 4200 business paper, says Maggie Ochs, a marketing manager at Xerox.
Wood chips are ground in machines to loosen their fibres and make pulp, but wood chemicals stay in the fibre, so twice as much paper is produced per tree, according to Xerox.
"We knew up front that there was an environmental story," Katz says. That's because of the physical characteristics of newsprint, which is lighter than typical office paper, so he and other Xerox engineers knew that when the wood was ground for pulp the capacity of the newsprint would be better than chemically produced fibre. They knew it would cost less to produce and use fewer trees in the process. "That's when we really saw a big, big opportunity on the environmental side."
That's a concern that is always top of mind at Xerox according to Ochs. "We do look at the environmental impact with every product."
'A beautiful mistake'
While most of the movement in green computing tends toward hardware that operates with greater energy efficiency or products whose manufacture takes less of a bite out of the environment, Userful's bailiwick is software. The company's DiscoverStation operating system software enables 10 employees to work from one PC, though the typical configuration used by customers is to have six workstations per computer.
Using a central web portal, the software can be centrally managed and controlled, with locked-down desktop configurations. The idea behind it is that most of the time office workers spend their time typing documents or email or they're reading a document, email or website. Most of the computing power just idles and isn't really needed, so Userful's approach is to attach more users to each desktop PC. Libraries, schools and military installations are primary customers for DiscoverStation.
Sean Rousseau, who is in charge of marketing and public relations for Userful, which is based in Calgary, Alberta, and was founded in 1999, got to thinking about the environmental aspect of that power savings. He counted up the number of PCs that don't have to be used because customers have deployed DiscoverStation and ran a calculation based on how much electricity it takes to produce a typical PC, how much electricity is required to operate it for a year and translated that into carbon dioxide emissions.
What he came up with is that the company's software had saved more than 13,250 tons of such emissions per year, "and, boom, that's like taking 2,300 cars off the road right there, in one year," he says.
"I realised this is a really green technology. ... It blew my mind."
Userful, which has about 30 employees, plans to make that green element of its OS more outright. "We're building into the OS a meter that actually detect how much power your computer is using and converts that into how much CO2 you're using, so it will explain it right there on your computer," he says.