Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Of Paperweights and Doorstops

I have quite the collection of paperweights and doorstops. They didn't start out that way of course. They all began life as usable electronics like cell phones and networking gear. All were the victims of upgrades to newer gear such as Wireless-B to Wireless-G. My cell phone upgrades every two years per the plan, leaving a graveyard of old phones. Some devices were on their way to the trash and I couldn't help but save them from becoming toxic waste. Don't kid yourself. Even the most innocuous electronic devices have heavy metals, plastics, and other materials that will continue to pollute for centuries to come.

What annoys me is not the proliferation of electronic gear but the fact that they can't easily be reused or upgraded. Why? Because they are designed to be tossed away, use closed architectures or, and this really galls me, are purposefully locked.

For example, I decided to upgrade my cell phone this year. My old one worked fine but was lousy for texting. So I took the old one to a Verizon store and asked if they could convert it to a Tracfone. Tracfone is a pay-as-you-go cellular service provider which is great for the kids. The no-contract, phone card type system keeps teenagers from running up massive phone bills. I was told, quite emphatically, “No!” What's so ironic about this is that Verizon owns Tracfone. I was offering to spend more money with them but they didn't want it. So the phone sits in my desk draw waiting for its day of liberation.

I could attempt to jailbreak it. Jailbreaking consists of hacking the hardware and firmware to remove whatever is tying the device to the service provider. Why should I have to do that though? Besides the fact that I might brick the device, it's also likely that Tracfone/Verizon still won't let me use it.

There are alternatives. I could donate the phones to various groups that re-purpose them for soldiers in Iraq or victims of domestic violence. Worthy use but I wanted to get more out these myself. And I'm pretty sure they don't want an old DSL Modem.

The sheer waste is incredible. Millions of these devices get tossed in landfills or, hopefully, sent to a recycler. All could be given a new lease on life if only they could be opened up, added to, and tinkered with. I'm not suggesting that vendors open up the phones when the are active. That would be nice but unnecessary. It's great that Cisco opened up their Linksys Routers. Lots of hackers enjoy extending their WRT54 devices, adding new features and sometime using them for entirely different purposes. I'm not that ambitious. I only want my devices to have a longer lifespan.

One of the great things about computers is that they can be used nearly forever. I know a lot of folks that still use DOS era computers for useful purposes. Some are hobbyists and others use them for a single purpose like voice mail. I still use a nine year old 40GB disk. I stuck it in a USB drive case and use it for email backup. Why can't we do that with all of these devices? Okay, it's big company greed but it's stupid greed. They could sell me a cheap retrofit kit and make a couple of bucks that they wouldn't have.

Reuse is the ultimate recycle. Let my devices go!


Michael said...


Your lament of the wastefulness of planned obsolescence is laudable - I share your frustration; but alas, have no silver bullet. On the bright side, consider that some newer devices are orders of magnitude more energy efficient (e.g., LED/CF lighting; switching power supplies; etc), and some offer net new capabilities (my iPod does things my Walkman never dreamed of).

Anyone need an ISDN modem? I have two with original software on floppy disk ;-)

Listen said...

One teensy-weensy problem: Verizon does NOT own TracFone.

Besides, TracFone service is only available on TracFone handsets.

Tom Petrocelli said...

It's only a little problem since most Verizon stores carry Tracfones. When I was in the store asking about unlocking my phone, there were Tracfones hanging on the wall.

It still doesn't take away from the fact that I was willing to pay some amount to unlock my phone but they won't do it.

Cell phones used to carry SIM cards that were user accessible. You could unlock the phone by replacing the SIM. Many now now have the SIM embedded in it, making them unable to be unlocked. I get them not wanting that when the phone is active on my account, but why when it's not?

Tom Petrocelli said...

P.S. Verizon is one of Tracfone's carriers. Since they carry Trafone traffic (Tracfone is a marketing organization they don't carry any traffic), there is a business arrangement.