Project Cauã: A large-scale project to reduce waste, improve computing, help solve digital inclusion and create jobs


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Nov 22, 2009 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Five years ago I started shifting my discussions regarding Free Software to try and address the question of "How do I make money with Free Software?" Four years ago issues around usability of closed-source software in today's modern world began to creep into my talks, leading to the question of how much time is wasted on a world-wide level by software that does not do what you want and need it to do. Three years ago I started to address the issues of energy utilisation and how much the next billion computers might use if we are not careful. Two years ago I started to address issues of software piracy and how it affects end users even more than the "software providers". Last year the issues of Digital Inclusion also entered the picture.

This year a world economic downturn causing massive unemployment caused me to pause and start to put into action a plan to address all of these issues, and more. Two Brazilian businessmen, Douglas Conrad of OpenS (Florianopolis) and Andre' Franciosi of Franciosi Consulting (Porto Alegre) started working with me to formulate a project which would solve some of these issues, and later a series of other business people and technical people joined the Board of Directors and the beginnings of a Technical Board, to form "Project Cauã".

Let's examine some of the issues mentioned above.

The average desktop computer uses between 200 and 300 watts of power. I have even seen one desktop system that "proudly" used 850 watts of power. Given the (approximately) one billion desktop computers in the world, if all of those computers were turned on they would be using between 200 and 300 billion watts of electric power. Add in the larger (and multiple) LCD and Plasma displays we all love to use, and this is a considerable amount of electricity.

A rough "rule of thumb" says that for every watt of electricity that is used for computing, another watt is needed to cool the system. While this is not necessarily a bad thing in Antarctica where it does make for a very expensive space heater, at the equator it is a real factor.

Of course the higher-powered systems also have fans. In my younger days I had a system that sounded a bit like a B-52 taking off in my cubicle, so I would turn it off in order to hear myself think. Of course a computer that is turned off is less useful than a boat anchor, because at least the boat anchor serves a function of keeping your boat in place. And the first thing to wear out on a computer is either the fan or the disk, yet another reason to turn off the system when you are not using your computer.

What if the system on your desk was so small and so efficient that it had no fan? That it used less then 10 watts of electric power? What if your networking was so fast and so omnipresent, with such low latency that you could survive with a solid state disk, or no disk at all? Then you might be tempted to leave the computer on all the time, and it could be the things you want it to be, like your TV, your radio, your telephone, security system, wireless router, home automation system, and (of course) your connection to the Internet.

Another issue is the time wasted in computing today. Forty years ago people were trained in computer science. They went to classes to learn how to use the computer, and were trained in how to take care of it. Then about 1980 industry decided to put the mainframe onto people's desktops and call it a "personal computer". People were expected to magically understand about "back-ups", viruses, filtering SPAM, and (as the price of computers fell) with less and less training in the less known aspects of computers.

Large companies were able to afford to hire those magical people called "systems administrators", but small companies dealt with self-trained people that might or might not have the expertise to do what was needed, and with less focus on what was not their "main job".

What if, in those one billion computers, we wasted "only" five dollars a day? At today's wages that is approximately fifteen minutes a day wasted because of viruses, lost files, unfiltered SPAM, or simply not having the proper software installed and the knowledge of how to use it. As a world society that would be about five billion dollars a day, and I estimate the loss as much more than that.

Of course cloud computing advocates say they solve this problem, and while "cloud computing" addresses a lot of the needs of people, there are many whose connectivity to the Internet in terms of either speed or latency or the lack of critical applications will not allow them to live completely in "the cloud" for a long time to come.

In a lot of the cities of the world people live in very dense areas. Tall apartment houses, tall office buildings, dense neighbourhoods where a broadband Local Area Network (LAN) could be supplied to give the bandwidth and latency needed to run a thin client and server combination. The Internet would be fed to the server instead of to individual companies, apartments and homes.

What if computing really became an "appliance" for most people, with a well-trained systems administrator/entrepreneur supplying the systems, software and know-how to maintain the systems in peak form for all their customers? That this well-trained person was not in India or West Texas, but just a few floors down from your own apartment or office? What if part of this well-trained person's job was to help you understand how to use your computer better and more efficiently? To save you and your family or employees ten or fifteen minutes each day in frustration and lack of productivity in using your "knowledge network"? Would that be worth five dollars a month?

What if this person was also a web designer, and could even write simple programs for you, if needed? What if they could help you integrate your software into your business or life?

And what if you were that person? Someone who knows and loves Free Software, enjoys programming, and would like the challenge of being your own boss, of being your own entrepreneur? Part of a society of one to two million such people inside of Brazil, and another two to three million throughout the rest of Latin America? Perhaps another million in Eastern Europe and Russia, and another four to five million throughout Asia? This might generate about five times as many Free Software developers as there are today, and answer (once and for all) the question of "where do people get support for Free Software?"

Notice I said nothing about North America, little about Western Europe and Africa. We do not mean to leave them out, but both economics and density of populations in these areas make it a "wait and see" for much of the plan.

Studies say that 80% of Latin America lives in an urban environment. While some people think of Latin America as "rain forest", "Amazon River" and "Carnival", it is also home to two of the world's largest cities, and many more smaller cities of dense neighbourhoods.

In addition, the preliminary economics of the project show that it could provide a better computing experience for the users, including paying the salary of the systems administrator/entrepreneur (SA/E), for less money than most of them pay today for fewer services. Part of the project is to prove this to be true.

However, we will not exclude the other places mentioned. Perhaps the project will work in Manhattan, inner-city Chicago, Detroit, and other high-density areas which have deep unemployment. Perhaps we will be able to move people off welfare and make them taxpayers again.

In particular, we would like to "employ the unemployable". Single parents, physically challenged. We believe that this "SA/E" could perform their job from the sanctity of their own homes, hiring people to help them when they can not do the task themselves. The project would provide that pool of people to help them.

There are many more aspects of Project Cauã. Issues of free (as in Freedom) and gratis (as in free) access to the Internet, following models used in various places around the world.

Many people will say "there is nothing new here", and that is fairly true. Nothing new has to be invented. No new technology has to be formed. This is a very, very large integration project, and therefore should be able to go very fast.

All of the results and plans of Project Cauã will be "open". People may follow along and/or participate as they wish.

Please go to the Project Cauã website and read about the project. If you wish to participate, please register. There is also a mailing list, and you can subscribe or un-subscribe as you wish. You may also read the mailing list archives at any time. We will be creating other methods of communication and collaboration as people join the project.

The first step is to analyze vertical markets, their needs, and what Free Software exists that can meet those needs, as well as develop the horizontal platform (servers, thin clients and networking) that will support those vertical markets. We will need the community's help and buy-in on doing that analysis.

Thank you for your time,

Carpe Diem!

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