Strong opinions, weakly held

Computers are disposable

Check out Jessamyn West’s explanation of the trouble’s she’s run into trying to get a couple of old computers donated to a library into a usable state. Here’s a snippet:

I work at this library about 90-120 minutes a week. This week I showed up and the librarian said that her friend has said the product key was on the side on a sticker. “Doh!” Sure enough, there were 25 characters and I dutifully typed them in. No go. Turns out the sticker on the side of the machine is a Win98 product code and somehow, mysteriously, these computers have Win2k Pro installed on them. No one knows how. I ran down the options with the librarian. 1) Buy an XP license or three from Tech Soup. 2) Hassle her friend to figure out wtf is up with the software on these computers. 3) Wipe the drives and install Ubuntu.

It’s a darn shame but the fact is that most older computers are just in no shape to be given to someone else to use. Even if you reinstall the computer with the operating system that it shipped with, chances are it’s insecure and will only wind up being a liability down the line.

I guess at the very least I’d say that if you want to donate a computer to an organization, you should be prepared to donate some consulting time as well to make sure that the computer works in their environment. The truth is that most people lack the expertise to provide that kind of help and should probably just recycle their old computers.


  1. Its almost always going to make more sense to donate the computers to an organization that specializes in computer recycling (ACCRC here in the Bay Area, or FreeGeek in Portland are two examples).

    They’re in the position to:

    • figure out if the computer is worth re-using
    • dispose of the useless bits in an environmentally sound way
    • provide training on the kind of software (free/opensource) that will likely run on these older machines.

    Many communities have these now, and they rock.

    That said it actually cost money to donate computers to these orgs (generally around $10) reflecting the reality that yeah, most computers are meant to be thrown away 🙁

  2. If I had a full time job there, this would be an awesome opportunity to install all OSS on to the machines and go nuts. However, I worry about having totally unattended machines running something that doesn’t look and work just like what everyone’s used to. My goal is two OSS machines and maybe one win-something machine. We have some good comptuers recyclers in town (not OSS guys but otherwise fine and dandy) who will take these off our hands for us or recycle the good parts, but it will be a damned shame if someone’s well-meant gift turned out to be so much work. I think I can get them to do something

  3. In my home town some companies acted as they were super kind and wanted to “donate” computers to local schools that were lacking (I’ve heard similar stories of these kind companies elsewhere too). In reality they were dumping their own old computers. One school leader refused to receive these old computers and he got a lot of criticism from parents etc, but his point was simple. “We don’t need old computers, we need manpower to help us with what we already got. Old computers are easy to get, but what we really need is effective sys admin and maintenance help. Give us a person or two once a week to help us rather than these old computers that will only take more resources away from us than it will add to it.”

  4. Here in Chicago there’s a group called Computers For Schools. They show up at monthly “hazardous materials recycling” days, where you can drop off everything from old computers and monitors to paint, household chemicals and even dead batteries.

    I was pretty impressed. I dropped off 7 old PCs (my wife and I are sharing an office now, so I don’t have the dead space for ’em) and they just had these pallets of PCs and monitors stacked up. They’ll try to recondition them, and if they don’t work they go off to the recycling system.

  5. I’ve got the parents of a friend (read, senior citizens) that insist on running their own Windows Millennium machine for — well, a Millennium.

    So ever week they’re on the phone trying to get me to come over and fix one thing or the other.

    We can keep these old machines in working order potentially for ever but as they age, they increasingly take more of our time.

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