While many companies are implementing – or trying to meet – corporate sustainability plans, either to be good environmental stewards or just to save cash (or both), they’ve found a number of significant roadblocks in their way. Switching to greener sources of energy, for instance, can be expensive. Changing manufacturing processes requires significant upfront capital. Running a green data center yourself often means picking up roots and moving a data center to another part of the country or the world.
But there’s one area where companies seeking to keep the energy use down have been surprised, as their employees have happily completed the process for them. The trend away from desktop computers toward more portable devices isn’t new: employees are more mobile today and don’t want to be tethered to a desktop. But increasingly, employees are using their own devices for dual-purpose: personal use and business use. It’s a phenomenon called “Bring Your Own Device,” and it refers to employees who use their own smartphones, tablets and even netbooks for business purposes.
It has the potential to save enterprises a literal ton of money and emissions.
Disappearing Desktop Farms
Here’s an example, obligingly provided by the Wall Street Journal. Imagine a company that has 10,000 desktop PCs. Leaving most of them
turned on all night (standard practice in most companies) can cost more than $165,000 a year in electricity bills, and at the same time pumping out about 1,380 tons of carbon dioxide each year. This is about the same amount of emissions that come from driving a car for two months. In aggregate, American businesses waste about $1.7 billion on idling desktops each year, and send about 15 million tons of carbon into the world.
Desktop PCs – even newer ones, which are a lot more environmentally friendly than those of 10 years ago – are dirty, energy-hungry creatures. The average desktop computer uses between 65 to 250 watts (averaging about 120 watts), and that’s just the computer. Add between 15 and 70 watts for an LCD monitor, depending on size, or about 80 watts for an old CRT monitor.
Now compare this to a typical laptop, which uses only about 30 watts: one-quarter of the energy of a desktop. Tablet computers such as Apple’s popular iPad use even less: the iPad 2 has a 25 watt-hour battery, making the device even more energy-sipping. For smartphones, cut those figures even lower.
BYOD wasn’t an enterprise initiative, it was something pushed by employees. Companies are now observing that many employees are choosing to use their own tablet devices or smartphones for functions they might have used company-owned PCs and telephones just a few years ago. The concept is interesting because as more people buy devices they use for dual-purpose: personal and business-related computing and communications (to eliminate the annoying duplication that used to exist when a person had to carry a cell phone for work and a cell phone for personal use), costs for enterprises are lifting as employees foot much of the bill themselves. The little enterprises do pay in energy for charging devices or plugging in laptops is dwarfed by what they used to pay to run a building full of desktops.
We have Apple to thank for the acceptance of the BYOD concept, says Computerworld, with the launch of its coveted iPad tablet computer. Analysts Aberdeen Group has reported that 96 percent of businesses have at least one iPad in use. (One company, German software giant SAP, reportedly has 12,500 iPads in use across a wide range of business groups.) iPads are particularly popular with customer-facing businesses with large sales departments, or businesses with lots of highly mobile employees such as insurance companies or health care organizations. While many companies initially resisted employee use of iPhones in the workplace, says Computerworld, these same companies were quick to see the value in iPads. The green light for the iPad led back to acceptance of employee iPhones, since the two devices share an operating system. (Computerworld points out that the same cannot be said of Google’s Android, since that operating system varies so wildly from device to device, making standardization and security far more difficult.)
Android may be starting to catch up, however, with a new seal of approval from the U.S. government. According to All Things D, the Pentagon recently approved Android for use on Defense Department computer networks, giving Google’s mobile operating system a big thumbs up and a route into the U.S.’s most secure systems. The Pentagon’s approval was not unconditional, however. For starters, only the Dell Venue, which operates Android 2.2, has been cleared for secure government network access. (Phones running Android 2.2 but made by HTC, Motorola and others are still a no-go.) Secondly, no classified information can be transmitted to or from the device. Web browsing has also been limited, and must be conducted via a DOD proxy server. And Pentagon-based Android are prohibited from accessing the App Market or any gaming functions (so playing Angry Birds in the Pentagon isn’t an option).
While a recent study from analyst group Gartner notes that 90 percent of organizations will support corporate applications on personal devices
by 2014, enterprises still have a long way to go in crafting a viable BYOD program. Most companies don’t yet have workable mobile device management (MDM) strategies, which are critical to tying countless mobile devices together into one cohesive whole and making sure the entire network is secure enough for enterprise use. Too many businesses still see BYOD as just about the devices, and giving permission to employees to connect their devices to company networks. That’s the tip of the iceberg: it’s cloud-computing and its associated technologies making it all possible and allowing BYOD to bring more value to the enterprise than just portability and some cash saved. On top of this, BYOD brings significant security challenges to an enterprise. Is your employee who is able to access secure customer information from his iPad letting his five-year-old play games on the device at home? Is your sales team in the habit of losing their smartphones with customer relationship management (CRM) apps stored on them in bars? Are your employees being careful about what apps – some of which collect personal information – they are using on their devices? All of these questions, which are generally addressed by a good MDM strategy, will be a challenge to widespread BYOD programs, though most companies will find that the benefits of BYOD far outweigh the risks.
Green Benefits in the Manufacturing Process
So we know now that smartphones, tablets and netbooks are cheaper and greener to run. What about to manufacture? Is there any environmental benefit to a tablet versus a PC when it comes to the dirtiness of the respective raw materials and assembly of the products? Laptops, of course, are smaller and have built-in LCD monitors, which means they use fewer raw materials than desktops. While this doesn’t mean that they have traditionally been greener to produce than desktops – after all, laptops have batteries, which are seldom known for their environmental friendliness, and their small size means that they are harder to cool, requiring more chemicals and flame retardants – many laptop manufacturers are greening their processes today. Apple now builds Macbook latpops free of some of the traditional computer manufacturing bad guys such as arsenic, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), mercury, phthalates, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products.
As for tablets, Apple has made attempts to green the manufacturing process of the iPad, and several other tablet players have followed. Most notably, Samsung and its Windows-based Slate tablet are the first in the tablet market to be certified green by TCO Development, a third-party organization for rating the green credentials of IT products.
But as tablet computers and smartphones require a number of rare earth minerals in their manufacture, as well as batteries containing lithium and other pollutants, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the manufacture of smaller, more portable devices produces any environmental benefits over the manufacture of desktop PCs. There are so many factors to consider: how conscientious organizations and individuals are about recycling electronics, where the rare earth elements are mined and how they are shipped, if and how they are recovered at the end of the device’s lifespan, how the factory that produces the devices is run, and how the end-user is using the device: for example, if a voracious reader uses her tablet device as an e-reader, she’s skipping the purchase of 100 paper books each year. Does that balance against the small amount of difficult-to-mine rare earth minerals her device contains?
The London Times Teakettle Debacle
How we use our devices also factors into the green equation. A bit of a media storm erupted in 2009 when a physicist supposedly calculated that performing just two Google searches uses the same amount of energy as boiling a kettle. The Google searches generate about seven grams of carbon dioxide each, while boiling a kettle generates about 15 grams, the London Times quoted Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard physicist, as saying. It was a very newsworthy story. Trouble was, it was false and the product of an overzealous Times reporter who apparently doesn’t like Google…or fact-checking…very much. (You can find Wissner-Gross’ refutation of the tea kettle story here.)
Google also debunked the Times article in a blog post. “Google is fast — a typical search returns results in less than 0.2 seconds,” said the company. “Queries vary in degree of difficulty, but for the average query, the servers it touches each work on it for just a few thousandths of a second. Together with other work performed before your search even starts (such as building the search index) this amounts to 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, or 1 kJ.”
So, far from the Times allegations of a Google searching belching out nearly seven grams of carbon dioxide, the figure per search is closer to 0.2 grams. Of course, the search is only part of the journey…your destination Web site or Web service may vary wildly in the amount of energy it uses, depending on the complexity of the process, how long it takes, where the data is stored and how the companies that run the Web site and the data center operate. Is the data served on old, partially empty servers in a city where the power grid uses 100 percent dirty energy? Or is the information stored in a state-of-the-art data center located in region with high rates of renewable energy generation, using with natural cooling and super-efficient servers? Did the Web master have a locally grown salad or a corned beef sandwich for lunch that day? Does that relate to you? How far can you carry the green responsibilities? How many of them are yours? Does it matter?
While you can carry green repercussions of enterprise computer use out to the nth degree (as with the Web master and the corned beef sandwich), you’d need to be pretty disingenuous to miss the significant environmental benefits a company of tablet- and smartphone-toting employees has over acres of employees tied to energy-hungry desktop computers that don’t get shut off at night.
While few people can survive on just a tablet or a smartphone – sooner or later, you’re going to need to type something, and unless you’re super-patient and have tiny fingers, you’ll find doing so frustrating on a touch-screen or thumb keyboard – many people are finding that the combination of smartphone or tablet (or both, tethered together) plus a laptop or netbook works well for them, and uses significantly less power than even the most efficient desktop machine. Think about it…once upon a time, when you needed to work from your home, what did you do? You fired up your home PC and used a product like Citrix or PC Anywhere to connect to your work desktop computer, running two power-hungry desktops at the same time. You had no choice: the software and data you needed to do your work was stored on a server physically located at your employer’s office, a scenario that is starting to disappear from all but the most security-obsessed companies thanks to cloud-based storage.
Once the input on our tablet and smartphones becomes more sophisticated – Apple has taken a great step forward with its speech-enabled personal assistant, Siri – the need for the keyboard may disappear entirely, allowing tablet and smartphone users to dictate documents and navigate and adjust spreadsheets with their voices, not to mention search databases, dictate messages and surf the Web by speaking to the phone or the tablet.
A tiny speech input device and a small, flexible display, an intelligent virtual assistant, a wireless Internet connection and a cloud-based application will be all we need in the years to come, and the PC will takes its place of honor in the Museum of Antique Technology, next to the telegraph, the fax machine and the Betamax player.