Open standards and Becta save the world

Why computers use electricity, lots of it.

ICT-related energy consumption globally is equivalent to the entire aviation industry and accounts for fully 2% of the earth's total energy consumption.

The reason is pretty simple: 20 years of exponential increase in the computing power of PCs was accompanied by the same in their power consumption. Most of this was driven by the symbiotic sales of Intel Chips and Microsoft software, which on obtaining a near monopoly de-facto standard ran out of control. Eventually, the average user had the absurdity of a super computer on her desk to run MS Word.

You would have thought the tree huggers, eco warriors and green types in general would be on to this like a shot, but apparently not judging by the literature that comes across my desk or through the letterbox.

In evidence I would submit only this week I have read a pamphlet from the 'Greens' in advance of the Euro Elections and another glossy Local Government multi-page booklet about 'schools go green'. Yes, you've guessed it, plenty of bicycling, turning off lights and random recycling stuff but not a mention of the computers they produced their tomes on, at great cost to the environment.

So why no mention of IT any where?

Why do folk not realise that their 400watt personal room heaters can be replaced by super efficient 20 watt equivalents and why do they not worry that their offices, full of these room heaters, have to be cooled by 5,000 watt air conditioning units?

The reason is I think simple. Computers in general are exclusive by nature. The non-technical are encouraged to use them, indeed mandated to do so as an essential job skill, but most definitely not encouraged to 'know' them, that's for techies. This leads to an unquestioning subordination.

Not for nothing was Microsoft voted the most trusted company in a recent UK poll. Trust is a bad thing, it stops you asking questions and absolves you of responsibility until one day you realise you have been had.

Open Standards

The past five years have seen an explosion in diversity in the personal computing world. Sure Microsoft and Intel still dominate the desktop market but the concept of de-facto standards has been lost as web-facing smart-phones, netbooks et al push into this sector with real vigour.

The result produced a profound sea change. Interoperability requires agreed standards. Even the might Microsoft's was unable to force it's proprietary standard on everyone else (remember OOXML?) so the only option are open standards. It's simple un-opposable logic.

In the UK for example, in the last two years, Becta the organisation responsible for IT in schools warned against upgrading to Microsoft Vista and Office 2007 because of issues of value for money and interoperability and they very publically supported and continue to strongly promote Open Standards.

How Open Standards Change Everything

The opening up of the computing market to diversity owes much of its success to new software to run on new platforms. Much of this software is either Open Source software or depends on Web developments which in turn are based on Open Source software. Rapid development of this software has depended for its success on developing Open Standards.

Most new devices on our desktops have in their origin embedded technology which came from the mobile phone technologies. It is therefore not surprising that these devices use as little power as possible. This revolution breaks the death grip of the beige box PC.

Once you can do what you have always done with a computer (at the same speed) on a 20watt computer as you can with a computer with a 500 watt PSU the scales fall from our eyes. It just needs pointing out.

At this point the article is in danger of becoming a paean to Becta (those jibes that we have joined the establishment must be true), Dr Stephen Lucey their Executive Director of Strategic Technologies has come out, all guns blazing, for low energy computing in the movie.

We know Becta are avid readers of our blog, maybe we inspired them? Who Knows? But in any case I really do care that the leading organisation for school ICT has taken up the cudgel on behalf of low energy ICT. So for now, Becta and Dr Lucey are my heroes.


The explosion in embedded technologies generated diversity which broke the de-facto standards shackles and ushered in the Open Standards. The new option to choose low power consumption computing matches the world's desperate need to reduce its carbon footprint.

It can't be long before Governments mandate that in the public sector their everyday computers use fewer than 20 watts and all software conforms to Open Standards.

Maybe they could even bring in a tax for gas guzzling desktops. Now there's an idea.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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