Maybe that PC will Neverware out

TRS-80 Crop

I hate throwing stuff away, especially machines. I’ve still got the first computer I ever owned, a 1980s-vintage “portable” Kaypro that’s the size of Kim Kardashian’s makeup case. Somewhere in the basement, there’s also a Radio Shack “Trash-80” laptop, featuring software actually written by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, in the days when he still got his hands dirty.

Of course, these machines are far too old for useful work. But every day, people discard relatively late-model PCs that have plenty of life in them. Many can barely run the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system or Apple Inc.’s OS X. But they would have worked just fine as a kind of Chromebook—a simple but powerful computer that runs software developed by Google Inc. And now a New York company called Neverware has created a relatively easy way to do this.

If you’ve got children in school, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen a Chromebook. The research firm Futuresource Consulting estimates US primary and secondary schools bought about 4.4 million of the sleek little machines last year, making Chromebooks the most popular K-12 computer.

Starting in 2011, Google partnered with computer companies like Acer Corp. and Samsung Corp. to introduce the machines. They run an operating system called Chrome, which doesn’t need nearly as much computing power as Windows or Mac software.

Chromebooks are Internet-centric machines, designed to run online versions of word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail and other common programs. Each carries just enough onboard data storage to hold a handful of files. Everything else gets stashed inside Google’s Internet cloud. The machines don’t even include mechanical hard drives, relying instead on flash memory chips like the ones in a smartphone. And a decent one costs just $200. No wonder schools are scooping them up.

But those same schools already have closets full of old PCs and Macs, and most of them could easily run the same software as a Chromebook. So Neverware worked with Google to create a version of Chromebook software that works on about 200 popular computer models from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Apple and others. The company says computers up to eight years old should work with the software, but I installed Neverware on a Dell Latitude laptop that must be 10 years old and it worked fine.

Neverware will convert an entire schoolful of computers into Chromebooks for $59 apiece. The company is also partnering with Samsung Corp., to offer a budget-stretching package deal. A school can buy 100 Samsung Chromebooks, and also the software to convert 100 of its old PCs.

Neverware has struck deals with more than 200 school districts in 38 states and 10 foreign countries. In Medway, when the public schools ran out of money after buying 200 Chromebooks, they dug 60 unused laptops out of a closet and loaded them up with Neverware.

Before the transformation, the old machines “were very slow to start, very hard to use in the classroom,” said Richard Boucher, the school system’s director of information technology. But as converted Chromebooks, the machines booted up in about a minute and ran five hours on a single battery charge. Impressed by the results, Boucher is looking to upgrade still more of the schools’ old hardware.

Businesses may soon benefit from Neverware as well. The company is launching a pilot program for businesses that want a few more useful years out of their aging machines.

As for consumers, Neverware offers a free version anyone can use. I got it up and running on a ten-year-old Dell laptop. Installation wasn’t seamless; the program doesn’t let you run videos or music files without extra fiddling. An experienced user can manage it easily enough, but amateurs might find the process intimidating.

Still, in an hour or so, the weary old Windows box had become a snappy Chromebook, suitable for banging out news articles, scouring Facebook and watching Netflix movies.

Of course, old computers are still old. Hard drives break down eventually, and batteries lose their ability to hold a charge. I’d never use a Neverware machine as my primary computer. But it’s an ideal backup box, just the thing for looking up recipes in the kitchen or lending to a houseguest.

All this is grim news for the PC business, which saw worldwide sales fall 8 percent last year. These days, even a five-year-old Windows box is perfectly adequate for most people. Now comes Neverware, a program that can make a decade-old machine seem newish. We’re running short on reasons to buy new machines. But I’ve got one more excuse to follow my instincts, and never throw a computer away.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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