How to deorbit the Chromebook... and repurpose it for innovators

Better than a Pi? It’s an open and shut case

Opinion Space junk grabs headlines. There's a lot of space hardware alive and dead – 9,064 objects at the time of writing according to the Orbiting Now tracker – and cleaning it up at end of life is the focus of a number of bizarrely nautical technology proposals like sails, harpoons and nets, more at home on an 18th century whaling ship than Low Earth Orbit.

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But the stuff in space is as nothing compared to the potential avalanche of ageing tech already on the Earth's surface.

Take Chromebooks, which laugh at the thought of a mere 9,000 potential corpses to bury. In the past four years, Google's utility notebook platform has sold more than 100 million units, and currently, even though sales are sharply down after a pandemic peak, the device is still on the roadmap for many millions more end users.

The Chromebook is unique for a number of reasons, with its centrally managed ecosystem a strange hybrid of mobile device and desktop, and three-quarters of sales going into education. Yet there are other one-of-a-kind aspects of the platform which make it ripe as a focus for experiments in how to imbue terrestrial electronics with a far longer useful life with benefits of society, the environment, and even the economics of the laptop market as a whole.

In general, manufacturers dislike the long tail of obsolescent devices. The traditional view is that a long functional life is as bad for profits as retirees are for the national economy: support gets more expensive as the ability to generate value goes down. Certainly, if you've ever had to tend to laptops of a certain vintage you'll have discovered the morass of conflicting model names and specs, online documentation, recovery data and driver roulette. If your time's worth anything more than minimum wage, it doesn't take long to rack up much more than you'd pay for a fresh Google browser-based notebook – making repairs economically bonkers.

Add to that the perception that the near-universal failure of every attempt in the past to sell kit as "future-proof" by making components replaceable and upgradeable – diminishing returns cut in really quickly – and you quickly end up with gear designed to actively repel longevity. Glued in, locked down, locked tight: the right to repair movement is only just beginning to make a dent.

Software support longevity

There is a curious counterpoint to this: the bottomless coffee cup of mobile OS upgrades. Born out of the shotgun marriage of unavoidable security patches and marketing bragging rights, the idea of guaranteeing support for many more years than a device is likely to last started to make sense. Operating systems don't change much these days, making backwards support more feasible, and pinning the longest software life on a flagship product isn't that risky. Flagship-toting punters are going to upgrade no matter what.

Here, as in so many ways, Chromebooks are weird. Google has given ChromeOS a ten-year window of guaranteed support without there being an appreciable premium tier to promote, as with Apple, or a large commercial sector generating revenue, as with Windows. It's unclear how many 2023 Chromebooks will still be in satchels and backpacks in 2033 – it's a hard-knock life – but it does signify that the long term stability of the platform and the maturity of the OS are such that long term life support is itself supportable.

The final unique weirdness of Chromebooks as a species is their inherent repairability. Built down to a price, they're simple to open up and the components are cheap and widely available. The trouble comes when you try to actually fix something and make good on that potential – Chromebooks are just as badly documented, if not more, than most laptops, and the locked-down architecture resists both fault diagnosis and hardware repurposing. In itself, that's one of the platform's major selling points. As part of a managed deployment with the backup of Google's central OS maintenance, ChomeOS on Chrome hardware is that rarest of beasts, a general purpose OS that's resilient to many classes of malware attacks.

Ease off the management a tad, though, and good Lord, what's that? A Linux command prompt? Open source apps of all shapes and sizes? Emulators, tools and dev environments? Well, yes and no. Chromebooks are astonishingly good value Linux boxes, providing you stick to the Google rules. You can uncouple from the mothership and run a new, non-Google OS, but it's an involved process. Like reflashing an Android phone, you may hit roadblocks. It's very hacky. The common view is that Google and its manufacturers want planned obsolescence to sell new computers. That may not be true. It may even be counterproductive.

Let's imagine giving the Chromebook spec an explicit de-orbit option, one that erases ChromeOS and leaves each machine as what may best be imagined as a big Raspberry Pi-like standard hardware kit – except one with screen, keyboard and battery. ChromeOS works fine across processors and other architectural variations, so there's a good hardware abstraction layer already in place – the idea's almost ready to go already.

That would immediately encourage a third-party ecosystem of pre-cooked OS images for various uses; ones, moreover, with a huge bias towards STEM tasks like teaching engineering, programming, security or anything where a lab filled with cheap permanently installed computers dedicated to a task makes sense. If you want Pi-like hardware expandability, then go buy a Pi already – at least, until someone builds a USB-based GPIO expansion board.

None of this would dissuade educational establishments from buying new Chromebooks for general use. Quite the opposite, it would release a tranche of hardware for re-use, in effect making any new purchase a two-for-one offer. Like the Pi, the availability of powerful, cheap hardware to a known spec would encourage innovation and the movement of powerful technology into sectors excluded by initial outlay and support costs for more traditional devices.

There's a lot to be said for creating a whole new niche to take advantage of a huge untapped resource, especially when the environment downside is to add a simple software feature and commit to decent documentation. The best we can hope for with dead satellites is that they burn up safely without wiping out entire orbits. The deorbited Chromebook not only provides a whole new tier of ultra-affordable computing, but blazes a path for other sectors to start thinking in terms of afterlife upside. Now that's out of this world. ®

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