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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Deal

Air Date: Week of

One software company has developed a way to bring old computers back to life, and keep them out of the trash. Cynthia Graber reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Whether you use a Macintosh or a PC with Windows, there's a little icon down in the right-hand corner for getting rid of digital junk, called the Trash or Recycle Bin. The trouble is, all too quickly, the very computer you use is also headed for the trash. Americans replace more than 60 million computers every year, and almost all of them are discarded. Computers are a toxic potpourri of metals, plastics, and insulating chemicals. So, a number of folks have been working to keep them out of landfills. Among the most successful: a Boston-area software company that has found a way to teach old computers new tricks, and put them in the hands of people who most need them. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber has our story.

MAN: Can anybody tell me -- oh, this is easy -- what RAM stands for? Yeah.

CHILD: Random access memory.

MAN: Okay, yeah...

GRABER: It's the second day of computer classes at the Dorchester Neighborhood Service Center in Boston. When the week is over, each student will take a computer home. Not a new one, though. Executive director Leonard Lee says these used computers are a perfect beginning to let these children, who come from low-income families, join the technological age.

LEE: With all these computers that are coming offline, everybody should have a computer. The pencil of today is computers, and I'm not talking about a Mont Blanc pen. I'm just talking about a regular old fifteen cent Bic. And that's the recycled computers that are coming offline today.

GRABER: The computers the students are taking home are loaded with a software package called "NewDeal," specifically designed to rejuvenate these old machines. Clive Smith is the CEO and founder of NewDeal, Incorporated.

SMITH: Every time you trash a computer, you trash someone's chance at computer literacy, and that's literally the case.

GRABER: Smith stands in front of a low-end Pentium loaded with NewDeal software: a word processor, spreadsheet, database, e-mail, and web browser.

SMITH: So what I'm going to do is, I'm going to do a setting here that will reset the computer. And let's time from now. That was it. That was an entire operating system shutdown and restart.

GRABER: Speed is just one of the things that makes NewDeal software unique. The system doesn't have special features most people never knew existed on other word processing systems, such as four levels of footnoting. It's so compact that not only can it zip along on a used Pentium, but it can also easily run a Windows-type system, complete with e-mail and a web browser, on what are commonly considered computer-age dinosaurs, two and 386s. It's incredibly easy. For those who've never used a computer, there's an introductory point-and-click setting with huge buttons. And there are four levels of each program, from beginning to expert, each with more features and complexity. In creating software that would easily run on old machines, Smith saw a business opportunity that appealed to his sense of social justice.

SMITH: Right now there's this feast of imagination going on around the world, and the table is the Internet. And if you sit at that table, you can participate. It's not actually about money. It's more about ideas.

GRABER: Smith believes that marketing low-cost, used, useful computers will help people get to the table. And he predicts that the business opportunities created by these used computers will only continue to grow.

SMITH: Every year 110 million machines are sold, that means every three year 110 million used machines are coming offline somewhere or in four years. In a pure business sense, the used car market is much larger than the new car market. The used computer market will be much larger than the new computer market. It's not a complicated equation. It's the law of large numbers.

GRABER: This summer, NewDeal officially launched their first products. Their software package sells for about a quarter the price of its competitors. And they're not just selling software. They've also introduced $99 green PCs, a package of refurbished 486s and low-end Pentiums, complete with NewDeal software.

(Forklift engine, clanking)

GRABER: One of the companies that provides the computers for these green PCS is Redemtech, outside Columbus, Ohio. Here, forklifts and dollies transport computers across the warehouse to be wiped clean of information and software, refurbished, and donated or resold. Accessing the hundreds of thousands of computers they receive yearly from corporations is relatively easy. The companies can ship truckloads at a time. But Redemtech's Executive Director Bob Houghton says getting a hold of those stored in homes and small businesses is a challenge.

HOUGHTON: The logistics challenge is one of the significant ones. Just physically picking it up or providing a collection point for the person or business to drop the computer off is quite expensive.

GRABER: Redemtech now loads some of the computers they do receive with NewDeal software. Houghton says that after finding out about the software company last year, he knew his company had found a promising new tool.

HOUGHTON: It immediately became apparent that NewDeal software was a great option for making an older PC that would otherwise be relatively unusable, quite usable. This would have been something that would have gone to recycling otherwise.

GRABER: The focus on collection and reuse is only one part of bridging the digital divide. Greg Rhode, assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce, says this gap is a growing economic concern.

RHODE: As our economy goes more and more digital, so to speak, those that don't have access to these tools in the new information age are not going to be able to participate in the future of our economy.

GRABER: The Department of Commerce is the governmental agency that has been researching the technology gap, and that coined the term "digital divide" in its studies. Rhode says bringing technology to those in need encompasses a variety of issues.

RHODE: One is, you'd have to have access to an infrastructure. You could be a very skilled computer user and be very sophisticated, but if you happen to be living in a community or in a remote area that doesn't have access to infrastructure, you get nowhere. You also need to have access to the tools that connect to that infrastructure, such as computers. On top of that, you also need to know how to use it.

GRABER: That how to use it is where Clive Smith believes NewDeal will corner the market.

SMITH: The idea that you can use this without a manual, and without ever having used a computer before.

GRABER: This simplicity, while complex enough for home use, will not attract many corporate clients. But Scott Kirsner, a freelance technology reporter, says this may be NewDeal's strength.

KIRSNER: I view it as a niche that they're smart to go after, and it may turn out to be a very big niche. If NewDeal's market is individuals in the U.S. and in other countries that buy a used computer or are given a used computer, I think it can be a good economic space for them to be in.

GRABER: NewDeal's Clive Smith believes these older computers will also be socially and economically successful abroad, where the digital divide is even more striking. About 90 percent of the world's population does not have access to a computer, according to the Software and Information Industry Association. NewDeal employees are currently translating their software into Spanish, French, and German, and they may be the first software company to begin translating into Zulu. There are other organizations trying to reuse or recycle old computers. And there are also groups that are working to bridge the digital divide. But at the moment, NewDeal appears to be the only company with an innovative technology to address both issues at the same time. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber.



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