Back to the Future: let’s stop buying new Laptops and Smartphones ;)

When I was a teenager, I used to go to the center of Paris to buy specific parts to build my PC myself: sound cards, video cards, power blocks, hard drive, CPU, fans, memory, you name it. Not only it was fun and instructive, but it was also good for the planet.

At that time, I would need to change only some parts of my PC (CPU, memory, hard drive) to get a more powerful one and get an extra years of life. The mother board, the tower, the hard drive, and so on, would last as long at they could last and as long as they were no needs to replace them.

With the advent of laptops and with the help of Apple, this approach became obsolete. Early laptops came with a builtin design that prevented any hardware update, simply because there were not enough slots (to add memory for instance), and also because the slots were suddenly not standard anymore.

At that time, I was young and I did not realize the implications of this, but the reasons I understood then were the following.

  • Because of optimization (space, energy saving, …), it was not possible to have laptops that would be easy to open and “tune” by yourself. The plugs would become smaller every year, so we were not even hoping to re-use our old hard drive on our new computer!
  • Most people did not want to tune their computers and would leave it to professionals (it could even be harmful to your computer and even for you if you don’t know what you are doing)… this message was particularly pushed by Steve Jobs, even for desktop (non-laptop) computers.
  • Because of Moore’s law (strangely enough one of the most famous geeks’ law out there), all our computers would inevitably become obsolete after a couple years. And you would really look not serious at all owning a 4-year old laptop.

All these were rational arguments and they made sense. However, three decades later, we can start having a feeling of how bad it is for the planet. Let us recall here that the environmental impacts of the digital industry represents the equivalent of the civil aviation GHG emissions (and in 4 years the equivalent of the personal cars). In these environmental impacts, the biggest share comes from the manufacturing, the transport, and the recycling of terminals and devices (read the detailed French study from the GreenIT consortium).

The environmental impacts of IT lies in building and recycling terminal and devices.

With climate change issues, soil pollution, and resource exhaustion, it is now time we change our strategy on this matter. At a time were Moore’s law is not even true anymore, we need to be able to stop buying new laptops and mobile phones when it is not mandatory. We should be able to upgrade them piece by piece. If the big companies invested in this paradigm, it could be extremely easy for anyone to do so, even with a simple 3D printer for some cases.

Of course, it would require a deep change in the business models, and also in the way we build software. Currently, “classical” software requires frequent update and cannot run on older devices. Fortunately, for laptops, there are alternatives like Linux Lite though and people need to be aware of it. Fortunately too, politics are starting to promote norms for reparability, that, if they get bigger, may change the way IT industrials see the market.

In the meantime, if you want to give a try using an older laptop, read this really good article on how to work on old laptops.