Google’s Chromebooks last just a few years, infuriating activists

Chromebook’s short lifespans and lack of repairability contribute to e-waste and cause financial losses to educational institutions, says an activist’s open letter to Google.

The pandemic pushed schools to provide every student with their own device, often turning to cheaper options like Chromebooks. However, the newly purchased devices are running out of software support and are hard to fix, raising questions about the environmental and financial effects on communities.

Producing a computer requires a significant amount of resources. According to some estimates, the IT sector's environmental impact could be comparable to that of the airline industry regarding greenhouse gas emissions.

The sale of over 31 million Chromebooks worldwide during the first year of the pandemic resulted in approximately 8.9 million tons of CO2e emissions.

Open letter to Google

Education professionals, environmentalists, consumer advocates, and over 10,000 members of the US Public Interest Research Group signed an open letter to Google urging the company to extend the life of millions of Chromebooks, which were scheduled to reach end-of-life in June.

Chromebooks' hardware and software have a short lifespan, leading to frequent replacements and causing unnecessary e-waste and financial burden on schools and students.

Chromebooks are equipped with an Automatic Update Expiration (AUE) date, which marks the end of software support. Google's guaranteed eight years of automatic updates for Chromebooks only commence after Google certifies the device, not upon the schools receiving them, a process that can be significantly delayed.

As stated in the letter, the lack of software support can block essential uses such as accessing state testing websites, while making devices vulnerable. Signees say that most of the expiring devices are still available for purchase online.

“We want to teach students how to have a sustainable relationship with technology, where they gain digital literacy while also understanding how to take care of technology and avoid being wasteful. Chromebooks need to last longer and become easier to repair,” write activists in the letter.

Hardware is made to be hard to fix

It’s not just the failing software that’s infuriating educators. The hardware part is challenging as well.

The Chromebook Churn Report showed that obtaining spare parts to repair Chromebooks poses a challenge due to manufacturers' limited production, making them both expensive and hard to find.

Researchers unveiled that almost half of the replacement keyboards listed for Acer Chromebooks were unavailable online, and more than one-third of the available ones were priced at "$89.99 or more, almost half the cost of a typical $200 Chromebook."

Schools currently have to resort to purchasing parts from third-party vendors or finding usable components from broken machines. However, another issue is the compatibility of the parts.

To minimize e-waste, these laptops need to have highly compatible parts, enabling sharing of the most easily breakable components, such as keyboards, screens, and batteries, across various models.

However, school technicians point out that the computers are challenging to repair using parts from older or broken devices, as updates to popular models often include arbitrary changes.

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