A report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group estimated that taxpayers could save $1.8 billion on Chromebooks for schools if the devices’ lifespans were doubled. | Konstantin Savusia/Shutterstock

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund says Google needs to extend the software expiration date of its Chromebooks.

“None of us can afford to stay on the disposability treadmill. All tech should last longer, and Google can lead the way by fixing the Chromebook Churn,” a press release noted. 

The Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) is a liberal NGO focused on consumer protection, public health and transportation. 

A report from PIRG found three main problems that contribute to high turnover: Google’s Chromebook design choices make repair and reuse difficult, manufacturers typically do not sell new spare parts for repairs and the devices have a built-in software expiration date of about four years.

Chromebooks exploded in popularity for K-12 schools in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic, often bought with taxpayer dollars. 

“Now, some three years after that huge spike in Chromebook sales – over 31 million units sold in that first year of the pandemic – schools are beginning to see their Chromebook fleets fail. This is the dark side to Chromebooks,” the report stated. 

The report estimated that across the 48.1 million K-12 public school students in the U.S., doubling the lifespan of Chromebooks could result in $1.8 billion dollars in savings for taxpayers, assuming no additional maintenance costs.

“We expect milk to expire, but not laptops,” the press release stated, adding that once laptops expire they can’t access secure websites such as online state testing sites.

How Google could improve

Google started a software initiative called Chrome OS Flex in recent years, which is a cloud-based operating system that helps extend the lives of older devices. On a 2022 E-Reuse Conference panel, Google’s hardware technical program manager on device reparability Scott Shackelford said the program is “Google’s environmentally friendly way of reducing e-waste generation by using what’s already in our possession.”

The Flex OS updates just as frequently as the Chrome browser, allowing older devices to be used even if its original OS is no longer supported. That could also allow the devices a longer use in secondhand markets.

“One of the reasons Google went all-in on this is that we know our users come from all backgrounds,” Shackelford said in 2022. “Taking something that was maybe in storage and could now run for another three to five years would open new pathways.”

PIRG said Google should take that a step further and extend the Automatic Update Expiration dates to at least a decade. 

“Ultimately, software shouldn’t be the reason we toss perfectly functional laptops, and the Automatic Update Expiration (AUE) should be eliminated entirely,” the report suggested. “As a first step, Google should extend the AUE to 10 years after the model’s launch date for existing models.” 

The report also suggested manufacturers should start producing more spare parts at a minimum of 10% overstock, parts should be standardized across models and manufacturers and Google should make it easier both to unenroll a device from remote management and to install a different operating system on it.  

“Chromebooks aren’t designed to last, but Google has the power to change that,” the report stated. 

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