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Go Vote in Dell's Green Computing Design Competition
Jeremy Faludi, 28 Apr 08
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Dell's green computing competition, ReGeneration, is halfway done; for the last half it needs you. The judges (of which I had the pleasure to be one) selected five winners in the competition, which will each get $10,000; now the public (of which you get to be one) gets to vote for the final winner, who gets an additional $15,000. You can see them and vote here. All of them are conceptual designs, none have been built yet; and Dell set up the competition so that all contestants keep the intellectual property rights to their ideas. That means that if they (or other companies) decide to use the ideas, the contestant can negotiate for licensing fees. This is very unusual and generous for a corporate competition.

I won't tell you who to vote for, but I'll give you a quick description of the winners in a nutshell. We were happy to come up with five winners who all took extremely different approaches to the contest; hopefully this will spur debate and drive home all the different factors that can make computing green. Broadly speaking, the strategies are:

  • modularity (extending product life by making component upgrades easy)
  • renewable materials (recycled plastic or bio-plastic composites)
  • thin-client (having the user's computer just be a terminal through which they access servers, which do all the real computing and storage)
  • self-powering with renewable energy (solar or fuel cell)
  • dematerialization (eliminating keyboard, monitor, and mouse with projectors and cameras)
  • providing a green service (using the computer as a tool to reduce impacts in other arenas, like grocery shopping)
  • Some designs are more whimsical and theoretical, others could be done today with existing technology. One arguably already was done in the late 1980's at Xerox PARC (read about the PARCTAB and Active Badge, if you didn't know about them). And yes, there are more than five bullet points above. Some entries used more than one of these, and some of these were shared by more than one entry.

    There was also one entry that didn't make the cut to be a winner, but had such a good idea that it deserves mention: if your hardware is going to be highly modular, so that it is easy for the user to upgrade individual components to extend the life or functions of the computer, you must also include software that helps the user know what to replace. Non-geek users simply know their computer is too slow or that it can't run their new program; they don't know whether the limiting factor is the CPU, RAM, hard drive, video card, or other component. Having a simple piece of software that shows you a graphical map of the swappable modules, along with a display of what the rate-limiting component is, would tell users what they need to replace and where it is. It sounds basic, but none of the other entries had it, and I've never heard of software that does this. (Though it would be easy to write, based on logging performance that is already measured by system utilities like Activity Monitor for the Mac or Task Manager in Windows.)

    Speaking as a juror, I have to say the quality of most entries in the contest disappointed me. I'm happy with the five winners, but of the 180+ entries, a surprisingly large percent showed only a shallow understanding of what makes computers green. In fact, most of the entries (which, being concepts, can be anything you'd care to think of) were less green than the OLPC, which is already being built. For instance, contestants used OLED displays so many times it was practically cliche, but no entries that I saw used a reflective-back LCD screen readable in daylight like the OLPC does. This screen uses less power than an OLED, and is very handy when outside. Why don't all laptops have this? For another example, no entries that I saw did anything more than hand-wave about efficient CPUs, while they could have specified super-efficient chips from PA Semi (who unfortunately may no longer make them, as they just got bought by Apple for other purposes) or VIA, or at least specified a performance standard; the OLPC already uses an AMD chip that does 433 MHz at just 0.8W (which is impressive). There were many other missed opportunities, such as using e-ink, heads-up displays, system-on-a-chip architecture, and others that I expected to see but didn't. For those looking to be clued-in about strategies for green computing, a decent place to start is our four part series from last winter, the Green Computing Update Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

    One thing that did impress me, though, was the variety of entries. There weren't just laptops and desktops, there were kiosks, toys, systems, even business plans. It would be great if all contests attracted and appreciated this level of variety (especially in green design, where a business plan for a product service-system can be much greener than a simple product.) Dell was wise to select five winners on equal footing, and in fact, I think the contest could have been left there. But the public portion of the contest is also useful, to see what concepts are most attractive to the market (and thus most likely to be successful if implemented), and to spur more public awareness and debate of green computing.

    The other thing that impressed me was Dell's commitment to going green. Of course I want them to go faster and further, but they're definitely one of the industry leaders. They pointed out to us that they were the first computer manufacturer to have a take-back program, the first ones to put LCD monitors into mass-use (although Apple's environment page boasts that they were the first to entirely eliminate CRT's from their product lines) and the first to be completely RoHS compliant (though Toshiba got bragging rights to the first RoHS-compliant PC). Dell also uses 100% green power, 40% from landfill methane and the other 60% from wind farms. (Keep in mind that they don't do manufacturing themselves, so most of the power use caused by Dell is in Chinese OEM factories whose electricity is probably from coal; but Dell by itself is a 10,000+ person company, with a large campus, so it makes a big difference and is a very important step, for which they deserve bragging rights.) These points highlight two things: First, the greening of the computer industry has a long way to go yet, as does every industry; and second, most of the big players are making strides towards green computing, and tripping over each other to be first on various fronts. Whether Dell is the greenest computer company or not isn't really the point; the point is that the industry as a whole is pushing (and is being pushed by others) towards a brighter, greener future.

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    I was very interested to read about Dell being 100% green (for their corporate activities anyway). What's the best way to get that information about companies? A few companies talk about this on their websites (especially since being green is currently quite faddish), but is there a way to verify info on a company's web site? Are there good places to look for this info?


    Posted by: Elisabeth Freeman on 29 Apr 08

    Hey Jeremy - sounds to me like you should have been an entrant and not a judge! Green mastery is in short supply.

    Dell's IP offer is intriguing btw. I've seen plenty of corporate competitions where winners get paid for their idea but nothing like this. I'll be curious to follow that one.

    Posted by: Christine Flanagan on 2 May 08

    Hi Jer,

    Great entry about what's working, what's not, and where there's room for improvement.

    Is Dell planning on adopting any of these strategies? Or, as Christine suggested, hiring you to consult for them? As the largest PC vendor worldwide, they could do a lot of good as a green design and manufacturing market leader.

    Cheers, Noah

    Posted by: Noah Iliinsky on 2 May 08

    I work on a green initiative at in Seattle, and we’re making broader-scale voting available on whether products from Dell and other CE products are green. We’re trying to have informed visitors to our site shape a ranked list of the best green products, so that mainstream consumers can consider green options when shopping. We have a dedicated green CE section but the initiative spans all sorts of areas including food. If anyone would like to add their insights, I’d certainly invite you to add your input at Cheers.

    Posted by: Mark Gaaserud on 2 May 08



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