BBC Future

Matter of Life & Tech

Juicebox: Squeezing new life into old computers

About the author

Jonathan Kalan is an independent journalist and photographer specializing in social innovations in emerging markets. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, he frequently reports from around the region, specialising in the spaces where technological innovation, social justice and media converge. You can find him on Twitter at @kalanthinks

Juicebox: Squeezing new life into old computers

(Copyright: Thinkstock)

By supercharging PCs that seem past their sell-by date, one company wants to put more working machines in classrooms and in developing world countries.

These days, virtually every new gadget we buy seems destined to become obsolete faster than we can tear it from its shiny packaging. New smartphones and tablets are released barely months after their previous versions, and the hardware and software quickly become incompatible. Tablets won’t allow you to swap out parts, new laptops won’t let you remove batteries, and the whole lifecycle of technology is becoming shorter, less sustainable, and more expensive for consumers.

But what if you could help extend the lifespan of technology that already exists? Give it a little boost, perhaps?

That’s the solution a New York City-based startup called Neverware is proposing. Its Juicebox promises to make “old computers run like new”.

Now, I know what some early adopters may be thinking. For those who believe that the age of tablets, smartphones, Google Glass and the “cloud” has heralded the demise of desktop PCs, there’s still one place you’re guaranteed to find a growing need for them. And that’s in schools.

Robert Hornik, Assistant Principal at East New York Family Academy in Brooklyn, remembers weekend trips to far-flung corners of New York City to hunt for old desktops from other city agencies – like the Police Pension Fund – that were giving them away for free.

“We had about 20 computers working, at best, out of about 100,” for a school with 450 students and 50 teachers, he recalls. “They were mostly the big, boxy computers, like the Dell GX270, all about 8-10 years old.” With an entire technology budget of just $12,000 per year, including one part-time IT person (an undergraduate at a local university), new desktops at around $500 a pop was not an option.

“Schools usually acquire computers in big batches all at once in hope that they don’t have to get them anytime again soon, “which of course, never happens,” says Steven Hodas, Executive Director of Innovate NYC Schools, part of a broader initiative by the NYC Department of Education to adapt technologies in classrooms for learning. Computers eventually breakdown, wear out, or become overloaded with junk and must be replaced over time with spare parts and hardware on a limited budget – resulting in a jigsaw puzzle of infrastructure, like at Hornik’s school. Then, when the computers start to get sluggish, preventing even basic browsing and application use, getting them all back up to the same speed becomes practically impossible.

Power up

Neverware’s Juicebox fixes this problem by turning school PCs into a “thin client”. Inside the physical box is a server with virtual machines and computing power that many computers share across a single network. So, instead of each computer being stuck with ageing components, suddenly all the computers have access to this powerful central store that does all the “heavy lifting”, allowing the computers to run like new. The Juicebox can supercharge any PC or even laptop – even if it’s missing a hard drive – and the whole system is completely wireless.

Since Hornik installed Neverware’s Juicebox over a year ago, East New York Family Academy now has over 100 working computers – almost four in every classroom, with two fully functioning computer labs. They haven’t slowed down a bit.

“The Neverware system gave us a big break. We were able to make all those old computers work,” Hornik says, adding “and lightning fast.”

This idea of “desktop virtualization”, has been around for over a decade, says Neverware’s 27-year-old founder Jonathan Hefter. “This is something banks and Fortune 500 companies around the world are using,” he says, and something that cloud computing now offers. “But no-one has created a simple cost-effective methodology, and automated it, so that you can operate without expensive IT departments.”

Currently, Neverware is piloting their solution around New York City’s public school system, which is one of the more autonomous and innovative school systems in the country.

“We planned to set up five schools in the first half of this year, but we had such a huge demand, we quickly went into double digits,” Hefter remarks, “now there is this incredible race on our part to scale up to meet the demand.”

But, Neverware does not promise to improve education. It is simply a hardware solution. “What Jonathan is doing with Neverware is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient,” worries Steven Hodas. “Every school will be where it was 5 years ago when it got that brand new shipment of computers. Basically, it’s a great point of departure,” he explains. “But now that you’ve got the tool, what are you going to do with it?” Just because computers are working better and kids can browse, research, and use programs faster, doesn’t necessarily mean they will learn better.

Recycled juice

That doesn’t lessen its promise beyond New York City classrooms. Demand for desktop PCs may be declining in developed countries, yet developing countries are incredibly hungry for PCs, says Jim Lynch, Director of Green Tech at TechSoup Global.

“With the growth of internet and electricity in Africa, demand for PCs is going through the roof,” he says.

Believe it or not, the actual hardware lifespan of a PC is around fifteen years – because most of the weaker parts are interchangeable. In developed countries PCs often get tossed after a few years of use because they slow down, or newer, better technology comes out – creating a tremendous amount of e-waste, and wasted opportunity.

“Life extension, or adding life onto an expensive piece of equipment like that, is by far the most environmental way to recycle – keeping both the function and materials alive as long as possible,” says Lynch.

Many organisations facilitate the donation of millions of PCs each year from developed to developing countries. But the process is not so easy.

“[The PCs] are quite often non-functional. They are slow, sluggish, they’ve been used for a few years” Lynch says. “To get a second life out of these things, you’ve got to clean it out, test it, put a new OS on it, and then it will run like it came out of the box.”

Energy challenge

International organisations, like World Computer Exchange and TechSoup Global, facilitate the refurbishing, but Neverware’s Juicebox could also play a new, more localised role, in this ecosystem as well.

Africa has a paltry recycling rate for mobile phones (just 1% in Nigeria, for example), and a similar recycling rate for PCs, says Lynch.

The number of obsolete PCs generated in developing regions is expected to exceed that of developed regions by 2016−2018, according to recent research – creating an enormous amount of wasted hardware.

By boosting the performance and extending the lifespan of old PCs in developing countries, Juiceboxes might help technology recycling become a little more sustainable, especially in schools that spend loads of time, money, and effort in sourcing and shipping in new or donated PCs. “One of the problems with donated computers is that getting them through the port isn’t straightforward. It makes it much more expensive,” says James Tooley, an expert on education in developing countries, and author of The Beautiful Tree, which explores how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves. “If you can just bring in a Juicebox, it might be easier,”

But, there are practical challenges. “The biggest challenge is electricity,” says Tooley. In off-grid areas with low power, or even urban areas with unreliable power sources, the Juicebox – which as the name might suggest, requires a lot of energy – would have a hard time.

Jonathan Hefter agrees, but believes that down the road, they could offer a low-power version that runs off solar for regions like Africa. Yet he admits this is a long-term aim. “We’re achieving a certain amount of operational expertise working close to home, then moving forward,” he says.

Wherever the potential impact of Neverware’s promise to make old computers run like new lies, for Hefter the bottom line is clear.

“It seems silly that schools are replacing their computers every 4 years when technology exists to fix them. At the end of the day Neverware is just doing something that makes sense.”

If you would like to comment on this video or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.