Independent Appeal: Processing power gets a new start in Africa

Rave reviews for the latest version of Windows were not just good for Microsoft – for people helped by Computer Aid, the consequences could be life-changing
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The Independent Online

One item that may feature on a lot of Christmas lists this year is the latest Microsoft operating system, Windows 7. If you upgrade to it you may also decide to treat yourself to a new computer while you are at it. If so, I know a man who would be very happy to take your old machine off your hands.

Tony Roberts is not a man with a huge number of shares in Microsoft. Rather he is the chief executive of Computer Aid International, which collects many of the computers the rest of us throw away and refurbishes them for schools and charities in the developing world.

If the advent of Windows 7 produces a wide-scale consumerist or corporate upgrade frenzy, he will welcome the influx of discarded machines to the large warehouse which is the charity's headquarters just off London's North Circular road. There, pallets of computer equipment deemed "past it" by UK businesses and individuals are stacked 20ft high, while teams of volunteers take deliveries of new machines and test their reliability in the adjoining workshop.

"The logic we live off," says Roberts, the founder of the charity which is one of the three being supported by The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year, "is that if a corporation feels the need to upgrade their computers, the machines they're getting rid of are still useful for some people."

As if to demonstrate this, the staff in the charity's office, tasked with matching foreign demand with British supply, are all using computers that are over a decade old. "We've recently raised the minimum specification for the machines we send out to Pentium 4," explains Roberts, "and we make sure that everything we ship is better than the machines we're actually using." The warehouse acts as a gigantic filtering system; many machines received by the charity simply don't work, while others aren't quite up to the minimum spec; the ones that can be refurbished using Computer Aid's stash of spare hard disks and memory sticks are upgraded in the workshop, while the rest (around 20 per cent of the total they receive) are recycled – to the highest environmental specifications, naturally.

"This goes some way towards battling the accusation that's often levelled at us that we're just transferring Europe's waste to Africa," says Roberts. "We're effectively doubling the life of the computers that make it through our system – and by doing so we're fulfilling the needs of many children and teachers out there." But the rate at which computers arrive at the door of Computer Aid International isn't always predictable. With businesses providing the vast majority of donations, the rate at which companies decide to upgrade their systems that has a direct effect on Computer Aid's work.

"Most people, and indeed businesses, rarely use anything like 100 per cent of the capacity of their computers," says Roberts. "We generally only upgrade because we fancy additional bells and whistles. So it's rarely technology that drives the upgrade process; yes, the millennium bug issue had the effect of making everyone upgrade, but businesses are more concerned with the fact that their computers are depreciated as an asset for tax purposes over a three-year period – so they tend to just replace them every three years, regardless."

However, the effect of the recession slowed the number of computers donated to Computer Aid to a trickle, and this situation was exacerbated by a stubborn worldwide reluctance to move on from the Windows XP operating system because of the well-publicised faults of its successor, Windows Vista. The recipients of Computer Aid's computers are certainly keen on receiving as high-spec a machine as possible. "Every time I have meetings with local organisations," says Roberts, "they always want two things: firstly faster machines, and secondly lower shipping costs. We can't help them with the second one," he laughs, "but each shipment we make is invariably of better quality than the last."

Laptops are much sought after, but there are always battery issues (by the time laptops reach Computer Aid, their batteries typically last less than 30 minutes before giving up the ghost) and laptop computers wherever they are in the world, typically have half the life of a desktop machine.

So Computer Aid aren't always able to solve all the local computing needs; for example, if a machine was needed to design a newsletter using desktop-publishing software, that may be something that they'd have to purchase a higher-powered computer for. But the majority of students and teachers will be using computers for the first time – simple word-processing, spreadsheet work and browsing the internet – for which Pentium 4s are more than sufficient. However, Roberts has had occasional surprises on his travels which show an increasing tech-savvyness.

"On my last visit to Zimbabwe," he says, "I saw an entire lab of 87 Computer Aid computers running Ubuntu [a free, open-source operating system]. Ten years ago, no one really used open-source software of this kind, because despite the philosophical reasons for doing so it was often impractical. But it seems that those problems may be disappearing."

It would be an exciting development for cash-strapped local organisations to install free operating systems on their computers, and thus escape the clutches of the world's big software companies. Roberts has high hopes for next year. He's particularly looking forward to the day when chunky, old TV-style CRT monitors are finally deemed too low-spec to send abroad; not only are the dead CRTs that arrive at Computer Aid classed as hazardous waste, but the newer flat-screen monitors are less than a fifth of the weight of a CRT, thus drastically cutting the shipping costs of complete systems.

But the charity's main drive is to get as many computers sent abroad as possible. So as companies break into their new budgets in January and April he's hoping to see a rush of Windows 7-related upgrades, and a substantial number of new (or, rather, old) machines arriving at the warehouse.

"We take less than a week to refurbish a machine," says Roberts, "so it's perfectly possible that an old Pentium IV being chucked out by a British business could be sitting on a desk in Africa and being used by a child within six weeks."

The imminent upgrade to Windows 7 might boost the flow of machines to Africa and elsewhere. "Businesses certainly planned to upgrade their machines ready for Vista," says Roberts, "but they didn't – and as of this moment they've put off upgrading for a long time. They can't put it off for ever, and we sense that a tidal wave must come sooner rather than later."

This tidal wave will, Roberts hopes, be encouraged by the release of Windows 7, Microsoft's latest operating system that has received fulsome praise for it stability – praise noticeably absent for Vista – and has already been responsible for stimulating the market for new computers. Advance orders for the new software broke records at Amazon in the autumn when it became the highest-grossing pre-order in the company's history, surpassing even sales of the seventh Harry Potter book.

The work of Computer Aid International might boost that further, by assuaging consumer guilt with the knowledge that your computer upgrade could benefit someone who almost certainly needs the machine more than you do.

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