For those who have been on holiday (and thus purposefully out of the loop) or living in a remote corner of the world untouched by the media, the owner and founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, has retired.
Some of the publicity surrounding his retirement has been amusing: I enjoyed the spectacle of a BBC reporter visiting him and asking if his computer ever froze. Some of it has been ridiculous: the idea that he was some uber-geek is plainly daft. His first great success, MS DOS, was not created by him: he merely bought it, and sold it on to IBM. Some of it has been honest: statements made that Windows would not have come about without Apple’s Mac inventing the Graphical User Interface are entirely true. However, all of the coverage I’ve seen has ignored the environmental impact that Microsoft has had, particularly in recent years.
We don’t tend to think of software having an ecological dimension. When we worry about carbon emissions, there is a propensity to envisage old-fashioned, heavy industry with large factories spewing smoke into the atmosphere. Alternatively, there is a tendency to imagine the spectacle of automobiles idling in traffic, the rippling haze of emissions drifting into a smog of poisons which is increasingly strangling the planet. Software, sitting in a DVD case in a local store, or as a link on a website, seems unthreatening in comparison.
However, software matters, particularly if it reinforces the consumptive habits that create further carbon emissions. Microsoft is guilty of locking us into a deadly cycle which does precisely that.
Everyone who owns a Windows machine is by now familiar with the pattern: one buys a PC. It runs adequately for a while, but patches eventually bog the machine down. Microsoft offers a new operating system, for which one’s existing machine is entirely unsuited and too underpowered to handle. The old PC is thrown out, a new one is bought, and the cycle begins again.
The average user may moan about the cost involved, but Microsoft’s tactics of pushing out the old operating system and replacing it with the new means that the user has little choice. Rapid consumption and disposal, in order to maintain one’s relative position in the realm of technology, is essentially forced on the PC owning public. Let’s be clear about the costs: there is the carbon impact in producing the metals, silicon and plastics. There are the transport costs from Asia (at least for components). There are the disposal costs for the old units. There are the energy costs for ever more power hungry processors, graphics cards and motherboards. Whereas the auto industry is looking at new ways to reduce consumption, the PC industry is apparently rampaging in the opposite direction.
Having said all this, what does the user get in return for paying the aforementioned financial and ecological pricetag? The answer is: not much. Vista’s appearance was enhanced, but there are few anecdotal indications that increased performance or stability has been the result. Vista has been such a damp squib that Microsoft executives are already talking up the mythical “Windows 7”. Furthermore, the Windows approach, fundamental to requiring the ever more powerful machines, has a flaw at its heart: bundling everything into the kernel, the heart of the operating system, means that maintaining the stability of that operating system is an ever more complicated task as new features are added.
Fortunately, the Open Source movement has more ecologically sound alternatives. This website was built using a 5 year old laptop running Ubuntu Linux and exclusively Open Source tools. Furthermore, Firefox 3, Opera 9.50: both the latest and greatest browsers, run with no difficulty. Nor does the Microsoft Office equivalent, OpenOffice 2.4, which ironically looks more like the old, familiar Microsoft Office than Office 2007 does. It is a clear, albeit personal, example of advanced software not necessarily requiring advanced hardware to run it. Progress in both fields can happen independently, and can occur in a context in which ecological impacts are minimised.
Bill Gates is apparently now going to spend most of his time running his charitable foundation. This foundation is supposed spread some of his ill gotten gains to those in need. There is so far no indication that he has quite the same impulses as Andrew Carnegie, who had such a loathing of money that it made him physically sick to handle it, and who created institutions as wide ranging as the Carnegie Foundation, Carnegie Mellon University and Carnegie Hall. Hopefully, however, Gates will put something back into helping those he has hurt by insisting on his unsustainable model. It would have been much better, however, if he had not caused the harm in the first place.