Features

Reboot or recycle?

National | Disposing of obsolete computers; multifunction chip combines many gadgets into one; beefing up security

Issue: "Germ warfare and national security," June 2, 2001

Old computers never die
Would you toss your computer into a recycling bin? A new program from Hewlett-Packard would have people do just that-pay to have their old PCs shipped off to a plant near Sacramento, where useless parts are ground to bits by a giant mechanical shredder. The effort is an attempt to fix an ongoing problem: Millions of obsolete machines waste away in closets, garages, and warehouses. National Safety Council research claims the number of PCs users deem obsolete next year will exceed the number of new PCs shipped. Often old equipment still works-and the owner hopes one day to find uses for it. Environmentalists also delay disposal, with concerns about hazardous materials. For example, the state of California classifies the tubes on computer monitors as containing hazardous waste and won't allow them in landfills. Denver-based Technology Recycling, a company specializing in computer disposal, says old equipment may contain lead, cadmium, and mercury. It claims recycling helps reduce businesses' property tax liability as well as insurance and storage costs. Enter HP, which charges $13 to $34 for each item it recycles, regardless of manufacturer. IBM's similar program charges $29.99 per item, and Gateway's trade-in program offers a rebate of up to $50 on a new computer. HP's recyclers examine the computer to see if it can be fixed up and donated to charity. Dead machines are then shredded into pieces the size of nickels, then separators extract bits of plastic and metal for reuse. The PC industry's interest in recycling may be an attempt at self-regulation. Manufacturers say that lead, mercury, and other materials are vital for use in electronics because no reasonable substitutes exist. By promoting voluntary recycling, they help keep local and state governments from passing laws that ban certain raw materials or establish mandatory recycling. All in one
The era of big computer is over? Convergence is now the watchword. Businessmen today still carry tiny cellphones in their pockets, wear handheld PDAs (personal digital assistants: those little palmtop digital organizers) on their beltloops, and lug laptops in their briefcases. But the sun may be setting on the era of lots of little computers-and even many big desktops. Computer maker Intel hopes to win the emerging high-tech race with a powerful new technology that combines the functionality of all these little devices into one. The Santa Clara-based tech giant showed off its "wireless-Internet-on-a-chip" concept at a conference in Amsterdam, saying it would be available to the public next year. Intel's design combines memory, processing, and communications tasks into one chip, thus making new products relatively cheaper, more efficient, and less bulky. Numerous companies are racing to serve up "convergence" products that simplify computing. Analysts say Intel is the first to create this sort of simplified design. The company claims its design will give cell phones processing power of 1 Ghz, approximately that of today's new PCs, and have battery life of up to a month. For now, some observers look to 2002's Christmas season as a bonanza of personal gadgetry, including new breeds of cell phones and handheld computers. Many expect the winners in this high-tech race to reap a market as large as, if not bigger than, today's Internet expansion. "Within the next five to 10 years, we should not be surprised to see devices such as wearable computers or even video watch phones become widely available," said Intel senior vice president Ron Smith. The tech industry's challenge is making these devices more useful to the average customer instead of merely a status symbol or expensive toy. Convergence products must show they can make life easier and thus justify their prices. Halt! Who goes there?
As the government indicted FBI agent Robert Hanssen on 21 counts of espionage, Defense Department officials were on Capitol Hill telling lawmakers that although the Pentagon does a pretty good job of protecting the nation's secrets from outsiders, it needs to do more to guard against inside jobs. "Between 200 and 250 times a year, we do have successful intrusions into the unclassified networks of the department," Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James Bryan told lawmakers. The threats range from juvenile troublemakers to terrorists to foreign governments' espionage, according to Gen. Bryan, so America must do more to keep pace with intruders. As Linton Wells, an acting assistant defense secretary, explained to the committee, the military depends more and more on a chaotic "global information environment" (meaning the Internet). He said that protection against rogue agents is better now than before. "Increasingly, we see that we have to be able to guard against the inside," he said, referring to the Hanssen arrest and the 1994 espionage guilty plea of ex-CIA agent Aldrich Ames. Right now the Defense Department is working on replacing conventional passwords with biometrics: technologies such as retinal scans, fingerprint checks, and voice-print analysis. "If we look at the way hackers are penetrating our systems, we find that it's usually password-related," Philip Loranger, director of the Army biometrics program office, stated. The change is supposed to make systems simpler for authorized users, while more difficult for attackers.

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