October 4, 2004

Trashware is rightware for cash-strapped organizations

Author: Marco Fioretti

Trashware often means "badly designed or useless software,"  but in recent years the term has came to indicate something else which could have an important impact on computer users. I use trashware to refer to trashed hardware. We all see perfectly good working computers dumped as soon as the latest and cutest software slows them down. But trashware is not trash, and a number of groups are working to save those "obsolete" computers from the landfill and using free software to make them useful again for fun, profit, or service.

Trashware preservationists are motivated by deeply different reasons. Some find it worthwhile to preserve knowledge of all operating systems of the past. Many of these programmers and engineers are fascinated by the history of all computers, not just x86 PCs. Eric Smith's page on retrocomputing gives a good
idea of the strange brews of hardware still lingering out there. Retrocomputing.net, "the shelter where old computers escape from destruction," hosts a wider gallery of more than 1,100 machines, and links to museums, collectors shows, and many other related resources. The Italian group ReFUN also has as its main goals "to have fun by revaluing old quality hardware, to learn original and extremely effective solutions, and preserve the history
of IT."

Other hackers see obsolete machines as just one more part, or a new side, of a bigger picture. Refurbishing a computer with the right free software becomes a way to provide equal opportunities to those who cannot afford the latest hardware and desktop software (be it free or proprietary). Most people on Earth must still work many months to afford a new computer for work or study, and lots of schools in the so-called First World aren't swimming in money either. Just a few months ago, the University of United Nations recommended that "useful lives [of personal computers] be extended to lighten the burden they put on Earth's air, land, water and human health."

For all these reasons, many LUGs and other organizations work to bring theoretically obsolete machines back to life, for use by institutions with little or no budget available for computers. Computers dismissed by private citizens or businesses are collected, equipped with the proper software, and shipped to the field, be it Junior's room, his school, or local or foreign non-governmental organizations (NGO). Some groups, like the Canadian Working Centre, also provide non technical services like job search resources and career counseling. In the U.S., the not-for-profit National Cristina Foundation works as a donation channel for recycled computers. In this case the machines are given for training to people with disabilities, students at risk, and economically disadvantaged persons. Other examples of this
category are the Hawaii Open Source Education Foundation and the Austrian NGO VUM, active in the Democratic Republic of
Congo and other African countries. In Italy you can find trashware support at Progetto Faber, the Empoli GOLEM, and any of the other groups listed on the Italian trashware portal.

There is a third category of player in the trashware world. Some hacker groups don't ship any computers, but focus on providing the right software to make all this possible. This is
why we still have many lightweight GNU/Linux distributions like DeLi (Desktop Light) Linux. This system, based on Slackware 7.1, provides a desktop for old boxes, from 486 to Pentium MMX 166 or so, in no more than 250MB of disk space. The main packages are the 2.2.26 kernel, XFree 3.3.6,
Siag Office, dillo, Sylpheed, and GCC 2.95. Basic SMTP, Usenet news, and HTTP daemons are also included.

The RULE project (for which I am the project
coordinator and one of the founders) wants to make it easy to Run Up-to-date Linux Everywhere. It does it with custom installers that can place standard Red Hat 9 or (still in alpha stage) Fedora Core 2 packages in as little as 32MB of RAM and 500 to 600MB of disk space. The beauty of this "not being another distribution" is that nothing prevents end users from installing and updating the same applications, with the same tools and online support, as thousands of other people.

In the Debian arena, the previously mentioned Working Centre has a spinoff which recently
released the Working Centre Linux Project, a similar solution to RULE.

Is this trashware or rightware?

One of the merits of all these groups is that they help everybody else ask the right questions. The approach that hardware becomes so cheap so quickly that software inefficiency is irrelevant is applicable, in practice, only to a minority of users. Apart from the pollution caused by careless disposal of electronic circuits, many people simply haven't enough money to afford new boxes every other year. Even more important is the fact that they don't need to. Many of the people still waiting for their first computer need it only for basic tasks like Web surfing and email. This should not mean that they must buy some hyper-powered gaming station, or give up, just to name a couple of things, HTML4 Web sites and digital signatures. This is why sometimes I wonder if "rightware" -- that is, hardware with just the right power one needs, and nothing more -- might not be a better name for these systems.

My list of trashware resources is obviously incomplete. Please don't hesitate to let me, and all NewsForge readers, know of any other initiative in these fields.

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