How Software Companies Might Lead Us Out of Our E-Waste Dilemma

I first came across the subscription model when, immediately following a software update, my Adobe Acrobat system failed to work and I was forced to reinstall it. But when I got to the step for entering the serial number I was instead deferred to an Adobe website where I was told to sign up for their subscription services. I didn’t have the time to write to Adobe to complain nor did I want to subscribe to something I already purchased. So, instead of subscribing, I sought out a freeware alternative which has more or less done the job over the years.

Since this event occurred, however, I began to notice the subscription model sprouting up everywhere: my email program uses this model, so too do many apps, and my WordPress themes have also switched to this payment mode. It is estimated that about 80% of historical software vendors will now have subscription services also known as software-as-a-service (SaaS) model over the previous sales model. While this might seem trivial to some, it is a huge price difference to many of us who make do with our computers long after they need to be replaced using similarly slow software that won’t outpace the hardware. Moreover, the subscription model is quite expensive comparatively, especially if we use certain software occasionally. How did we get here that a software leasing system is becoming the preferred model for small businesses?

First, I am aware that the obvious answer here this: capitalism. How could we not foresee that asking someone to plop down $300 for one piece of software would be—in this economic climate especially—a lot more difficult to sell. Getting consumers to pay for what appear to be smaller fees within a monthly subscription model has brought forth a boom in the subscription model among a client-base that is cash-poor.

What originated targeting the enterprise sector around 2015 soon caught on in the consumer market as it proved challenging to crack the sale of expensive software to people whose salaries were being downsized while also experiencing a fall in the quality of living. After all, is it feasible to sell a $699 Adobe suite product in one go, or might selling a $9.99 a month subscription be the better deal? Obviously, for startups, the monthly fees save enormously for what might be untenable first-year expenses. But, for individuals, it seems like the software market will never level off, growing in expense year by year such that subscription models for some seemed to take the bite off spending hundreds in one go. For instance, when I lost the use of Adobe, I couldn’t afford to subscribe but I also could not find an inexpensive or free replacement to do markups on PDF aside from some light proofreading tools contained in Apple’s Preview that came with my computer. Finding cutting edge software, as the saying goes: you get what you pay for.

The market which educates us about where to buy and what to buy tends to be heavily focussed within media journalism where people who buy software tend to inform themselves about these products to include the comparable freeware and less expensive versions of software they can no longer afford. Many websites specialise in teaching the consumer what to look out for in new software, which freeware contains malware or which software is best to use for website design, for instance. While SaaS might seem to some hardly suitable for a population losing work in the era of COVID-19, unable to afford new software, when the math comes in, it might just be that SaaS is the least expensive and more efficient.

The software industry has faced its biggest hurdle in sales as people have lost jobs in unprecedented numbers since the invention of the home computer or laptop and even since the Great Depression. In fact, along with the race to find the vaccine to COVID-19 is the race to keep software sales up for companies whose clients are now under- or unemployed. The enterprise software that set the subscription model as the default payment model is now no longer a given as businesses are questioning their need to pay into what is a costly exercise in this economically slow era. While US small businesses are suffering particularly during the COVID-19 crisis, companies like Zoom have learned from their popularity during lockdown: consumers cannot afford to upgrade their hardware to run the latest software. Enter stage left, Zoom’s HaaS (hardware-as-a-service) model where now we can rent computer hardware for $75 a month.

While there are many ways to look at SaaS and now HaaS from the more cynical to creative analytical perspectives, it’s hard not to be skeptical about companies cashing in even during a financially strapped period of our collective history. At the same time, for those of us facing computer hardware issues (I am writing this from my computer jimmy-rigged to a cheap screen as I hold out for computer prices to drop this autumn), maybe the subscription model would be the best of all worlds as we can at least ask for quality and hardware that can keep up with the software, and vice versa.

Of all the trends I never expected to change as a result of this global pandemic, the formats for selling computers and software would have been the last on my list—if even at all on my list. Perhaps, the future of leasing our technology, privacy issues aside, might also provide us with a more ecological way of using and reutilising hardware where the companies who source technology to us are ultimately the bodies left responsible for recycling or shipping old tech to recycling centres. Still, this model in the private sector will be a hard sell for those of us who are more possessive of our laptops than we are our toothbrushes.

Still, just as some experts claim that “the future is the subscription model” regarding software, we might begin to consider the HaaS model currently being ramped up in the business sector and all the possibilities it offers us both as consumers and ecologically-minded individuals. While we can keep up with the latest news on digital waste and recycling, the reality is that we are producing 40 million metric tons of e-waste (electronic waste), much of which can be recycled, much of which cannot. The disposal and recycling of components containing lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants are not always straight-forward and inevitably pose a significant health risk to those workers who handle these materials in addition to their families and the communities that come into contact with these substances. With e-waste having increased 21% over the past five years according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor, the thoughtful use of hazardous materials needs to take the front seat to our predilection to buy, buy, buy.

Here’s the hard part for those on the left concerned about our ecological contributions to the planet’s destruction and our responsible use of technology: we need to consider for a moment that SaaS and HaaS, for all the capitalistic contrivances they so clearly embody, might also offer us a short-term solution to e-waste. After all, the writing is already on the wall with the federal government having announced last week that it would stop buying used computers. Short of curtailing our computer spending, we need to stop buying disposable devices entirely which is not a feasible option for most of us who use computers for our survival or we need to insist upon all tech products being upgradeable, unlike Apple’s retina series Macbook which leaves users at the mercy of tech companies building updated systems instead of demanding that tech be held accountable for e-waste and that they offer the possibility to swap out older components to improve efficiency. For some pundits, we already don’t really own our computers which, although debatable, does offer us another perspective into how owning a device implicates us in the need to constantly pay into updating these system’s software and hardware. In this sense any form of tech ownership is already a leasing into the future of invariable crashes, fixes, and updates.

Might the best compromise between ecological waste and capitalistic excess be a hybrid solution where the public and private sectors demand that hardware devices are made adaptable to upgrades while the leasing—and not the sale—of hardware is considered as the future model of technological acquisition?

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: