Leveraging existing distribution channels to streamline supply, is an age old business methodology. But can a downstream software distribution channel be used for upstream hardware collection? I don't see why not.
New hardware is getting cheaper, which has an inverse impact on the second-hand computer market. It's cheaper to buy a new computer than upgrade the old one. Who invests the time looking for a future-proof motherboard that'd take processors released 12 months from now? And as our computing devices get snugglier, so does the room for upgrading them.
I'm not the only person who runs multiple virtual machines with multiple gigs of RAM on processors with multiple cores. I'm also not the only person still clutching on to computers equipped with 256MB or 512MB of physical RAM, powered by processors that compute slower than my mobile phone. And they aren't that old, you know.
If you're stuck with a dated machine in Austin, Texas, just call on your friendly neighbourhood Ken Starks (and the entire HeliOS team). Ken doesn't just put old hardware to good educational use, he upgrades the machine thanks to (tax-deductible) monetary donations.
So how do you replicate his model elsewhere?
One option, as far as branded hardware goes, is to follow Dell's lead. They work with the National Christina Foundation and give people the opportunity to donate their old hardware. But there's little you can do for this model to take off globally. It's upto the big multinationals to take up the initiative.
Distributed collection, anyone?
The real option then is to leverage existing volunteer-driven software distribution channels. Fedora's FreeMedia program is one example. In addition to distributing Fedora media, the distro ambassadors can become collection points for donated hardware.
Then there's the local LUG. A LUG has the clout an individual doesn't. Within the LUG, you have the people with the intention to take this through. A LUG can also register itself and give tax benefits to the people donating the hardware. Besides LUGs, you have local instances of global groups like the FSF, Knowledge Commons, the various Centers for Internet and Society, and hundreds of others, that have the resources necessary to run such a campaign.
And don't think the cheap devices like the OLPC, and the $35 laptop will make obsolete hardware, um, obsolete. In India alone, for every million students that get the $35 device, there are many times the number that don't. Globally, the numbers would reach into billions.
Please, try this at home
But what do you do with a refurbished dated computer? Instead of reaching out to schools and students without access to one, target schools that have computers. Their students are exposed to computers, but most probably don't have one at home. Having a computer at home exposes a student to the technology far more than having access to one at school.
And don't sweat if OpenOffice.org crawls on 256 megs of RAM. Leave the desktop stuff for the school. We need the next-generation of smart code monkeys and kernel hackers. That old hunk of metal was good enough for my LAMP setup six years back. It sure is now, too.