Often an old computer will, for seemingly unfathomable reasons, slow down so much that using it becomes intolerable. Glenn Paul, who has been in the computer business in central New Jersey since the dawn of the personal computer era, has two theories about why this happens, both of which point fingers at Microsoft. The first is that the computer has been designed to slow down, and the second is that Microsoft only makes money when it adds new features and builds new systems that outdate your computer’s operating system.

Eventually most users stop being able to tolerate the computer’s excruciating slowness, and they go out to buy a new machine, often spending time and money to dispose of the old one. But there are alternatives that will not only help you dispose of that old computer but also possibly help a child in Trenton get a taste of life on the other side of the digital divide.

Paul and other community volunteers have formed the Trenton Digital Initiative, aimed at providing hundreds and hopefully even thousands of families in Trenton with the computing resources they need to be able to browse the Internet, access online information and learning resources, and otherwise compete with the rest of the modern world. As the nonprofit organization’s website — www.trentonmakes.info — proclaims: “In today’s world, everyone deserves Internet access.”

Here’s how Paul envisions the system will work. First he urges anybody determined to get a new machine to donate their seemingly unredeemable old computers to the Trenton Digital Initiative, where a group of techies will rehabilitate them for donation to poor families in Mercer County. “Computers that are 10 years old are really powerful,” Paul says, “if you take out the overhead of Microsoft.” (See details on how to donate, page 32.)

Donated computers then require an investment of about eight hours to clean the computer’s interstices to get it moving again, with the help of free programs like CCleaner. The volunteers of the Trenton Digital Initiative clean the disks of existing data, which most donors expect. They then replace any damaged parts and do a one-disc installation of a Linux operating system; LibreOffice, a free Office-compatible system; a Firefox browser; and the capability to make PDFs of all documents (these can be submitted, for example, as written reports for school without worrying about printers and the expensive ink cartridges they require).

To test out the idea, the Trenton Digital Initiative people used two computers donated to Homefront and were able to create one good computer. Right now, they are trying to accumulate 200 computers, with the idea that they will have sufficient parts to produce 100 really good ones. “We are trying to get the pilot done before the end of the summer so we can have them installed in people’s homes and see if it makes a difference for them,” says Paul.

Paul had tossed around the idea for the initiative for a couple of years and talked about it with folks at Homefront, the Trenton-based nonprofit with a mission of getting homeless people back into productive roles in life. But not being able to get inexpensive Internet access was a serious obstacle. In today’s world, of course, computers are not much good without high-speed broadband to access the Internet, something many poor people can’t afford.

“There is lots of data that people who are at the lower end of the economic and educational spectrum are much less likely to have access to the Internet,” Paul says.

As is often the case in the digital world, however, a price break came along that changed the playing field. Dave Breidinger of Comcast had been telling Paul about a new program that Comcast was planning, that would make the Internet affordable to many more people. Finally the Internet Essentials program was launched. To connect up the users of their refurbished computers, the Digital Initiative will take advantage of the special Comcast program, with qualifying people obtaining high-speed broadband for $9.95 a month.

At about the same time, Paul went to a technology meet-up in Newton, Pennsylvania. “We were chatting, and I mentioned the idea,” he says, “and everybody got all excited and said, ‘Let’s do it!’”

Paul then broached his idea to Anthony Roberts, aide to Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, and the mayor loved the idea. Many Trenton business groups and nonprofits also wanted to help out.

So now the Trenton Digital Initiative welcomes computers that can be resurrected with a graphic desktop, word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, Firefox browser, and PDF generator that enables users to create portable documents that can be e-mailed or printed at school. The software is compatible with Microsoft Office, so users can work with documents that they may generate on other computers.

For Paul, the program is a logical extension of a lifetime spent in and around computers. Raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where his father was a sales manager and his mother was a homemaker and a nurse, Paul earned an English degree from Princeton University in 1979. Early on he worked in a computer store where the computers shared space with fishing worms. In 1981, at age 23, he partnered with investor Bob Clancy to start Clancy Paul Computers. It became the pre-eminent computer store in Princeton and central New Jersey.

In 1989 Paul and Clancy sold out to a national firm, ValCom, getting a substantial chunk of ValCom stock and taking a salaried job as regional president. But he left ValCom two years later and ended up buying the original retail store back in 1991. “It’s more fun to do it your own way,” he said at the time. The store did well until Dell centralized production, and he had to get out of the business.

Paul also developed one of the first photo websites, dotphoto.com, which he founded in 1999, sold, and then bought back from an entrepreneur in 2007 for a high price. With the 2008 recession he had to get rid of it again, but recently the company that bought it gave it back to him.

Now he is figuring out how to continue the business, which has millions of pictures and half a million page views a day, by taking advantage of how much the cost of technology has come down. Ten years ago he bought a help system for $20,000 a year versus one he just bought for $348 a year; he bought his first terabyte drive for half a million dollars and now can rent space from Amazon for one cent for 10 gigabytes.

Today Paul, a Titusville resident, owns Textler, a software company that develops medical and wireless applications. In the past two years Textler has worked with Gentell Inc., based in Bristol, Pennsylvania, to create Fastcare, a program in which nurses who work in nursing homes throughout the country use a standard tablet computer to diagnose wounds and place orders from a patient’s bedside. The company is collecting information about thousands of wounds and hopes in the future to learn from this data how best to treat different types of wounds.

On occasion Paul has been described as a “serial” entrepreneur, but he has pointed out that he is basically a computer guy who has had to change as the industry has changed. Along the way he has learned plenty of lessons. During the Clancy Paul days he opened a computer store in Roebling Center of Trenton, a redevelopment of an old industrial facility. Customers could save money (paying half the usual amount of sales tax on purchases and repairs) and do drive-up drop-offs for service. If this worked, said Paul then, he would roll out a chain of repair centers for PCs.

It did not work. “We had done a survey and lots of people said they would come to Trenton to save 3 percent on sales tax, but they didn’t,” said Paul at the time. The Trenton store also turned out to be the most expensive computer store he had ever operated, and eventually he had to close at a loss.

Paul is very worried about Trenton. “It’s getting to the point that there are a lot of cities where we are warehousing people,” he says. “We’re warehousing people when we wall off a city and say it’s alright to keep everybody alive but we don’t have anything for these people to do.”

The increased mechanization of society, he continues, is felt widely, but all the more so for people who are off the grid. “Digital technology is concentrating power and wealth, which is a problem not just for the children of Trenton, but for all Americans. We live in interesting times.”

Paul is especially excited about the idea of making education more widely available. “We may be in the golden age of education,” he says. “Instead of education becoming prohibitively expensive, it is going to be free.” Noting that some of the best teachers in the world are available through Coursera and Kahn Academy, he says that the browser default for the computers he is rehabbing will be a page of learning links on the Trenton Digital Initiative website, trentonmakes.info.

“The Trenton Digital Initiative is the reminder that no idea is as powerful as an idea whose time has come,” he says. “People immediately understand the logic, and most people want to help. The other challenge is common to every business: you can make a machine that turns air into gold, and you’ll still have the problem of people finding out about it.” His mission now is to get the word out that “TDI needs used computers.”

Although Paul realizes that some people may sell these computers as soon as they get them, he is optimistic that many will keep and value them. “My great hope is that a handful of people will really benefit and maybe those people someday will make a difference in Trenton and will have gotten this break,” he says.

How to Donate

Here’s how a business or an individual can easily and without expense donate old computers:

Trenton Digital Initiative accepts laptops, desktops, and tower computers as well as flat-screen monitors and large (not small) color CRTs, which are the traditional boxy models, weekdays during business hours or from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings to HomeFront at 1880 Princeton Avenue in Lawrenceville, 609-989-9417. Trenton Digital Initiative has found that even 10-year-old PCs with Pentium processors can be valuable for use on the Internet.

Tell them your computer is for the Trenton Digital Initiative.

Don’t fret about data theft. Trenton Digital Initiative wipes out all data on a hard drive during the installation procedure. You can also do it yourself; see http://pcsupport.about.com/od/toolsofthetrade/tp/erase-hard-drive.htm.

Glenn Paul invites businesses and individuals to visit the website: www.trentonmakes.info. Says Paul: “If you have a quantity, we will arrange to have it picked up.”

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