Speculations on the Future of Free Geek
Free Geek runs on several resources. Without each of these elements, Free Geek would struggle or even collapse. In no particular order:
We get it in two basic ways:
- as a business
- online sales
- wholesale sales of gizmos we don't repair to scroungers
- wholesale sale of scrap material to recylcers
- recycling fees
- as a charitable organization
- donations at time of recycling drop offs
- donations in response to solicitations
Volunteers can be grouped by motivations (though there's overlap, of course):
- Those who want computers --adopters
- Those who want to help --do-gooders
- Environmental activists -- greens
- Digital divide activists -- social justice advocates
- Open source advocates
- Those who want to learn or gain work skills
- in general -- students
- Hardware tinkerers -- builders
- Software tinkerers -- coders
- Technology lovers -- geeks
- Those who buy stuff from us retail -- customers
- Those who buy stuff from us for repair -- scroungers
- Those who buy scrap from us for recycling -- recycling industry
- Those that can be used and there's a market for above -- marketable gizmos
- Those that can be used but nobody wants -- unmarketable gizmos
- Those that are broken -- useless gizmos
There are several things beyond the control of Free Geek that allow us to exist. These things will change the reality in which we operate, and will eventually radically change how Free Geek works.
(Moore's Law refers to the exponential growth of computer capabilities.)
Moore's law drives the obsolesence of the computers, and thus the cycle of people throwing stuff out. All the gizmos we get are here in a large part because of Moore's Law.
Someday this will give out and hardware will plateau. At that point the number of gizmos we receive will begin to drop. No one knows when this will happen. Because we use gizmos that are out of date, we have the luxury of being able to see it coming, because it will hit the main computer market before it hits us.
We get obsolete stuff
From outside Free Geek's perspective the gizmos we get are in the categories of unmarketable and useless, but inside Free Geek, we consider them again and find the marketable ones. So from an outside perspective we give away obsolete equipement, roughly:
- Five year old equipment is what we started giving away (FreekBox I and first half of FreekBox II).
- Three year old equipment is what we are giving away now (last half FreekBox II and FreekBox III).
Hardware is getting more complex and more integrated
- As the PC developed, more components were built into the motherboard, so computers themselves became more integrated.
- As more components are integrated, each component becomes itself more complex and difficult to repair.
- Simultaneously, the price of the integrated components drops.
- Therefore, the payoff for learning how to repair computers falls as time goes by.
- Laptops are newer and more integrated than non-mobile (desktop) PCs.
- Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are newer and more integrated than laptops.
- The cycle for computers then:
- Desktop computers give way (in part) to laptops
- Laptops give way (in part) to PDAs
- PDAs are too integrated to repair if they fail
- Volunteers in the build program are motivated by this tinkering culture, and the fact that this has historically been tightly related to job skills, but that will likely change.
This is true of non-computer electronics as well:
- DVD players (for example) are very cheap to make (buy), but very expensive to fix.
There are other historical parallels:
- Compare this to the car repair and tinkering culture that sprang up when automobiles were simpler, but has largely fallen by the wayside. It seems likely that the same scenario will play out with computers. Interest in building and repairing computers will fade as component integration progresses.
Software plays catch up to hardware
The development of hardware leads the way, and programmers follow up by:
- first trying to take advantage of the new hardware capabilities, and
- ultimately trying to squeeze the most out of those capabilities.
Because Moore's Law moves so fast the first item predominates. But at Free Geek, we experiment a bit more than most with the second.
Open source software challenges proprietary software
There is endless debate about what the future will look like in terms of software, but it seems likely that:
- Open source software can dominate on servers.
- Open source software is gaining on the desktop.
- Applications that have a large user base are likely to have more and better open source options as time goes by.
- Applications that have small niche markets might take longer, but some of these niche markets overlap with the open source developer community.
The digital divide is wider in other parts of the world
For some period of time, a market for the unmarketable (in the US) gizmos will be the developing world.
- Many of our build volunteers will fall away eventually as computers become too complex to fix.
- By training people to repair laptops we can extend this
- Training coders extends things even further
- Someday Free Geek might just become an organization that does only the following:
- receives gizmos,
- triages them (usable + marketable or neither),
- redistributes usable + marketable gizmos (sales and adoptions)
- recycles the rest
- Along the way, the lower end stuff could need to go overseas for maximum positive impact.
Looking at the Horizon
We might be able to get data on how many laptops per non-mobile computer per PDAs exist in the US and in other industrialized countries. From this data we might be able to guess when integrated hardware will overwhelm computers. That point would mark the beginning of the decline for the build program, which would accelerate as computer technology becomes more integrated into everything. We can call that time the horizon.
Between now and the horizon, we might want to focus more on laptop repair and software skills than we have in the past.
If Free Geek is to be replicated, the sister organizations should be established well before the horizon, after which organizing them will become increasingly difficult.
rfs 13:28, 24 Jan 2005 (PST)