General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division
The Compleat Lawyer
Spring 1997
copyright American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

Michael Jimmerson

J. Michael Jimmerson is a technology consultant and founder of Legal Counsel & Computing. He is the co-author of A Survival Guide for Road Warriors, a best-selling book on mobile computing for lawyers, published by the American Bar Association. His next book is Windows for Lawyers, to be released in Fall 1997. He can be reached by phone (773/506-9870), e-mail ( or the Web (

Putting Your PC Out to Pasture
At some point, your trustworthy old PC will complete its useful life and need to be replaced. Hopefully, this will not occur until the value has fully depreciated. How do you decide when that time has arrived? What do you do with your old equipment?

Before you throw any of your computers on the scrap heap, determine whether they have any useful life in them. What do I mean by "useful life"? This is the period during which productive work can be accomplished in an efficient and economical manner. A machine has reached the end of its useful life when it is no longer efficient or economical to continue to use the same machine. The useful life on any computer equipment is about 36 months. Fortunately, this corresponds to the depreciation schedule for federal tax depreciation and most standard manufacturer warrantees.

What explains this phenomenon? Two things: applications and operating systems. For example, we do not use PCs with Intel 8088 processors any more although we could probably find 8088 machines that work fine. However, the applications (or programs) that we are using today demand more powerful hardware. In some cases, the application would just run too slowly for productive use, if it would run at all. What the hardware manufacturer giveth, the software developer taketh away. This vicious cycle is known as the PC paradigm: Faster machines are constantly being introduced and the price for computers is constantly falling over their life span. The corollary to this theorem is that software must continually be upgraded.

The operating system, the basic instruction and command set the computer uses to run applications, is the second factor that impacts the useful life of hardware. The best example of this is the Windows operating system. In 1985, Windows 1.0 was released. At that time, the dominant machine was the 80286, although 80386 machines had just been introduced. Of course, even the latter machines are obsolete these days. Currently, you must have at least a 486 75 MHz machine with a minimum of 8 MB to run Windows 95. Notice I did not say a Pentium machine. In fact, the amount of memory in the machine is much more important than the processor or its speed.

Operating systems have improved dramatically over the last ten years. This has made computers easier to use, thus enhancing productivity. Getting more work done is also easier since you can use more programs at the same time. But upgrades to the operating system always require even more powerful hardware.

So if upgrades to our applications and operating systems render our machines obsolete, why not just stick with the version we are currently using? In many cases, law offices have done just that. DOS is still firmly entrenched in the legal market and many shops are running WordPerfect 5.1. What incentive do these firms have to change? Their rationale is that they can still churn out lots of work with these stalwarts. Why upgrade for bells and whistles they probably don't need?

But the issue is whether continuing to use the same equipment is efficient and economical. Could upgrading both software and hardware enhance productivity? In most cases, the answer is yes. Sure, you could keep doing things the old way. You could go back to stone tablets and chisels or quills and parchment. But would you get as much work done?

In my experience, the reason most people do not upgrade is because they fear new things. Nothing like that comfortable shirt even if it does have holes in it. Or your favorite chair with the stuffing falling out. We abhor change. Upgrading your software and hardware will not be painless at least in the short term. But typically you will quickly get over that "bump" and become more productive. Go ahead and make the switch. Who knows, you might like it.

So what do you do with your old computers when you upgrade to new machines? Use them for door stops? Why not consider donating your old equipment to your favorite school, church or synagogue, or nonprofit organization. Although you many not be able to realize productive results from older computers, these entities may be very happy to get your hand-me-downs. Also, nonprofits have sprung up to receive and recycle your older PCs and older versions of software (contact the East-West Foundation at 617/542-1234, or the Cristina Foundation at 800/274-7846). Some software companies offer free or low-cost upgrades to charitable and educational organizations with older software. Clean some room off your hard disk and shelf by getting rid of old software.

So what are you waiting for? Give your old, worn-out hardware and software the boot. You'll enhance your own productivity and help someone else out in the bargain.

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