Tablets, Print and Sustainability

It’s rare to find actual information on energy efficiency of the web versus other media forms, so I was pleased to find this study related to the sustainability of tablets. Tablets are likely to be the hardware of choice for most of the emerging Internet – areas outside the US and Europe – where desktops are not a common purchase, and are unlikely to ever be.

Tablets advance in triumph everywhere

Schools in the US and throughout the world are incorporating iPad or similar tablets into their classes, and kids who can’t talk yet increasingly get access to online via tablet form factors. An infographic about kids and the Internet from the end of 2012 notes that 10% of children under age 1 have Internet access, and 39% aged 2-4 have access.

So, it seems that in a decade or two standard desktops may not be the preferred device to access cyberspace, with the big-screen workstations relegated to the rooms of designers. So, in thinking about sustainability, we need to consider the impact tablets have on the environment. This is doubly important, since the e-book revolution is causing a net migration of print-style media onto tablets. People are using print less, and enterprises are reducing purchase of paper to print with.

“A magazine is iPad that does not work” may be getting some legs.

While the self-righteous tone of this video is irritating, it is true that the next US generation, after Millennials (sometimes called “Plurals”) will think of tablet use as natural, books and magazines less so.

Are tablets really “green”?

As we move from an print to a “tablet” style of media consumption, the focus for sustainability drifts into design, in particular web, app, and game design. This includes hardware, but more importantly, the web software we use to create apps, websites, and other Internet programs.

Traditionally, techies have assumed that their tablets are greener than bad old print. For example, an iPad is estimated to release 2.5 grams of CO2 per hour (around 5 watts effective) by Apple, with less for iPhones. These numbers are several times lower than incandescent bulbs, or even CFLs.


What about the embodied energy of an iPad? These devices use energy-intensive techniques to create their electronics. But even if you consider reported “embodied energy of manufacture,” an iPad becomes greener than print after you’ve downloaded and used your 18th e-book.

So, many tech-nerds are feeling pretty green about the table revolution, hence the frequent irritation that designers show when told they need to create efficient websites, games, and apps.

However, this rosy picture is just plain untrue. The actual energy cost, including (more) externalities, is closer that that describe in a recent article by Nick Moran on The Millions (2102):


In this case, even including the consumption of energy and water used to make print documents, tablets in all likelihood lead to overall greater energy consumption by society. The article notes that “sustainable print design,” which seeks to reduce the cost of paper manufacture and the pollution of the environment by unfriendly ink, has a way to go. So, while one might assume that tablets will become “greener,” more recycling and sustainable graphic design thinking will lead to print becoming even more green!

Instead of 18 books, Moran says that the “break even” point for tablets appears to be near 40 books – several years of reading. And if we add in embodied energy, the break even moves even further out.


Of course, after 5 years, you are likely to replace your iPad with a new tablet. The conclusion is that tablets are not hyper-green, and in fact in the long run boost energy and resource consumption.

The author of the article points out that most households with one tablet quickly acquire another (for the kids?) which clearly makes the problem worse. A physical book will be used sequentially among family or friends, but tablets encourage simultaneous reading of the same book by multiple people, possibly all sitting in the same room, “alone together.”

Tablets and information sustainability

One last point about tablets versus old media is the culture around print. The Millions, while online, is more like a traditional print newsgroup (i.e., it pays its writers). Compare that to the blogosphere, where this single researched article was echoed repeatedly. Obviously, I’ve echoed here, but at least I put the link back to the original.

The “unauthored” nature of Internet “science” or “facts” is another problem for long-term sustainability. In the old world, information was assumed to be either divine (holy books) or authored by people. But, due to our religious-like belief in the “living” nature of the Internet and the coming age of spiritual machines, it is getting harder to source. Instead, knowledge is seen as being part of the Internet and our social network system, as if they were the origin of “collective intelligence” rather than people.

Wikipedia, like a holy book, is “unauthored” and we are led to similar conclusions about the information therein. Where does that info that Siri spouts come from, anyway?  Jaron Lanier has a great analysis of this in his instant classic, You Are Not A Gadget.

The rise of tablets encourages the echo chamber. All those kids on iPads will grow up in a world where information appears to “just be” online and care less about origin. The Internet, and its information will be either “like air” or “holy.”  This is not good (and something web designers need to think about when doing their Information Design and citing sources).

App vampire power

Another aspect of tablets is the sneaky way in which “apps,” as opposed to standard desktop software, use power. On a desktop, programs have multiple functions. On a tablet, these same functions are decomposed into dozens of apps. In theory, this should make thing more efficient. But in practice, the supposedly inactive apps snaffle up “vampire power” and greatly decrease the running time of the hardware on batteries. This study from 2012 was the first to summarize this problem. It comes from Microsoft, one of the few browser manufacturers to actually work to reduce energy consumption by its Internet Explorer software under Windows 7 and 8.


So, we should heed these engineers when they say that adware and its kissing cousin, malware, suck massive power from our tablets.

The big take-home is that supposedly “free” apps on your mobile actually pull power when not in use. Most of this power is being used to run adware or spyware. This creates a hidden cost in the system. At the time (2012) of writing Angry Birds was only using about 20% of its power to run the game – the rest of adware and related gunk:

One thing sustainable designers know is that there isn’t a free lunch. If you make something “free,” it is actually paid for somewhere else in the system. Free apps grab power to run ads and spy on their users. And mobile adware is growing in a nasty way according to this summary from Trend Micro:

The eProf program itself is still under development, but its ability to monitor fine-grained power consumption with apps should prove valuable in the future. Even if you aren’t running malware, the system could help developers find the energy bombs in their programs, and reduce them. It’s worth checking the following site for the upcoming release of these developer tools:

In summary, tablets will be the face of the future web. With their higher carbon footprints, it is necessary for designers to work to reduce their impact. Sustainable Virtual Design should be part of any project which will target this new virtual world (and its digital children).


There are lots of additional relevant links on Eco-Libris, though many are “echo chamber” blog postings – track back to the originals to get the numbers:


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