Re-using PCs: Remploy's Radical Route

One of the problems with the rapid pace of development in the world of computers is that the latter become out of date and slightly slow compared to the latest speed fiend. Moreover, the computer industry is predicated on the idea that everyone...

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One of the problems with the rapid pace of development in the world of computers is that the latter become out of date and slightly slow compared to the latest speed fiend. Moreover, the computer industry is predicated on the idea that everyone upgrades their systems every year or two, and marketing is largely geared to that end.

The net effect is a lot of PCs are discarded when they are perfectly usable, not least as systems running lean GNU/Linux setups that require far less in the way of hardware than the latest Windows, say.

The problem has been what to do with all these machines. Once, you might have given them to local schools, but these all seem to have huge suites of the latest PCs, and they tend to look down on anything second hand. Ideally, the systems might be sent overseas to developing countries, but the organisation required for that is considerable.

Given all that, it would be nice if there were a UK organisation that took such systems, checked them out and cleaned them up, and then sold them for a knock-down price. A bit like Remploy's new e-cycle site, which offers refurbished machines:

The products available have all previously been used in offices and other locations around the UK by various organisations. All products are run through our site production line and are thoroughly checked, tested, cleaned and repackaged.

When I first heard about this laudable initiative, I thought it would simply be a site full of old computers running Microsoft Windows slowly. I was wrong – here's one of the two options:

Entry Level P4 2.0Ghz and 15" Flat Screen Monitor – Ubuntu 10.10

This Entry level PC is ideal for surfing the internet, downloading songs and editing photos.

Features include:

Full colour 15" TFT display (flat panel monitor)
P4 2Ghz Proceessor
256Mb Ram
20GB Hard drive
CD drive
USB ports
Wired Keyboard
Wired Mouse

Here's the software included:

Ubuntu version 10.10 (operating system)

Open Office Suite ( Word Processor , Spreadsheet, Draw etc)
Firefox ( Internet Browser)
Camorama (Web Cam Viewer – webcam not included)
VLC Player (DVD Movie Player)
Brasero (CD/DVD Copier & Image Burner)
Shotwell (Photo Manager)
Rhythm Box (Play & Organise Your Music -speakers not included)
Adobe Flash Player ( Flash add-on for Browser functionality)
Gnash SWF (Shockwave ad on & player)

The price? A rather reasonable £92 including VAT and delivery.

So let's look at the Windows option, which has the same hardware, and the following software:

Microsoft XP PRO (operating system)

Microsoft Office 2007 Basic (Word , Excel, etc)
Microsoft Email programe
Microsoft Security Essentials (protection for your home PC that guards against viruses, spyware, and other malicious software.)
Windows Live Essentials (Messenger, Photogallery, Family Safety)
Microsoft Learning Suite

Now, you could argue that this is rather underpowered compared to the free software offering, but let that pass. Instead, I'd like to direct you to the small print (although it's actually in the same font size....):

To qualify for this offer you must be receiving financial help from the government in one or more of the following ways. (If requested, I can provide evidence of this.)

Housing Benefit
Income Support
Jobseekers allowance
Pension credit
Disability Living Allowance
Attendance Allowance / Constant Attendance Allowance
Incapacity Benefit / Employment and Support Allowance
Disability element of Working Tax Credit

Remploy and Microsoft may review the information provided, to check that computers from this offer are only reaching people who qualify.

Now, of course, that's just fine – it's good that Microsoft is making its software available at greatly-reduced prices to people who are unable to afford the hundreds of pounds that the official list price demands. And the e-cycle site is all about providing "a low-cost internet and hardware package especially for people who are just getting to grips with the internet."

But the interesting fact remains that free software offers full functionality software – not cut-down versions – to everyone: this isn't a question of charity, as it is with the low-cost Microsoft offering, but about sharing really good stuff with the world.

I'd love to know how many people start to buy the familiar Windows system, only to find that it's not actually available to everyone. I'd like to think that a good few might give the cheaper (by £3), better Ubuntu-based offering a whirl.

In any case, Remploy deserves kudos for offering both options – despite my cynical fears. The only thing I might suggest is that it makes it possible for people to donate their unwanted PCs for use in this excellent scheme. I realise that is easier said than done, but it would be good to extend what is a already a great idea.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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