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$89 Symple PC Project Evidently Dead

Phoenix based Symple PC, which offered refurbished “web workstations” running Ubuntu for $89, has evidently ridden off into the night of no return. Since at least August 24, the company’s website has said the product is “No Longer Availabe,” although the website remains operational. Numerous attempts to contact the company for clarification have gone unanswered.

The venture was the brainchild of Jason Spisak, whose history with Linux and FOSS goes back to being the co-founder and marketing director Lycoris, which made news in 2003 when Walmart offered the Linux distro preinstalled on $199 PCs. FOSS Force first told you about the Symple PC back in March, not long after the company’s official launch.

“I conceived the idea for Symple PC Web Workstations while visiting an e-waste recycling center,” he told FOSS Force at the time. “The Snowden revelations were fresh in my mind, and I had also just watched a documentary about the scope of our global e-waste problem the day before. Walking through the place it hit me: I could bring together a need to actively mitigate e-waste and protect privacy with my passion to get Linux pre-installed on affordable computers for schools, non-profits and businesses in a single project.”

Symple PC's Jason Spisak
Promotional picture of Symple PC founder and CEO Jason Spisak.
The Symple PCs sought to be more than merely refurbished discarded desktops with fresh installations of Linux. Because they where built using a variety of used components the specs on individual machines varied, but all met a minimum requirement of at least 2 GB RAM, 80 GB SATA hard drive or larger, and a 2.8 GHz P4 processor or faster. They came enclosed in a new case built entirely of recycled materials, were “rigorously” bench tested to find faulty components, and were covered by a one year full replacement warranty. Although the company was targeting SMBs, they also offered to ship single units to consumers.

Evidently, the testing wasn’t rigorous enough, as the product seemed to be plagued with dependability issues from the start. Almost immediately after we published our first article on the desktops, we began to hear stories from consumers about Symple PCs that died after only a couple of days use. However, the company stood behind it’s warranty and immediately shipped replacement units.

Spisak also showed that his heart was in the right place. In early May, after learning from one of Ken Starks’ columns on FOSS Force that Starks’ nonprofit Reglue had lost a major supplier of used computers because he wouldn’t transition from using Linux boxes to Microsoft Surface Pro or Windows, Spisak sent us an email:

That’s like someone saying their donation can only go to feed the school kids General Mills products for lunches instead of organic, locally grown, real food because its what the well-off donor grew up on and serves to their employees. Especially now that Apple and Google are such a big part of education, even if it is not FOSS, Microsoft isn’t what kids will be using in the future at work. Feel free to quote me on that.

To that end, my company would like to match that $1000 donation in Symple PCs to make up for any shortfall Ken is experiencing from them this year…. Problem solved.

He followed through on this promise, which Starks covered in a later column.

At this point, it looks as if Symple PC was a noble experiment that didn’t work out — which is just too bad. If it’d been successful, a lot of toxic waste would’ve been kept out of landfills, at least for a year or two. The $89 price tag would also be a big help towards meeting the computer needs for struggling mom and pop businesses. Mark this down as a good try.

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  1. Paul Palmer Paul Palmer November 30, 2015

    I am sure that the people running Reglue and Symple are as generous and well intentioned a lot of people as I have ever known. They are trying to make silk purse out of a sow’s ear, creating value from discards and making kids happier and more productive in the process. And to some extent they succeed.

    Nevertheless, they are running their ship onto the reef of inadequate and misleading policy. They do not understand how the garbage system works. And with a misguided policy in tow, they end up being enablers of waste, greed and planetary destruction. Not with any intention of doing so of course.

    The garbage industry has cynically embraced recycling for its ability to corrupt and distort public consciousness. Basically, they love recycling because they can tell the public: “Don’t worry, make all the garbage you want to, it’s all going to be recycled.” And the more that this phony recycling is pushed, the more that the torrents of garbage flow into dumps and incinerators. Electronic components are an integral part of this deception. Good intentions can’t change that.

    The problem is that electronic devices are designed to fall apart or become obsolete after a very short life. Sometimes the fickle public needs to have the new color of a case. Sometimes they make sure to make a model with a small storage so the next model can sport a larger storage. Always the circuit boards and peripherals are designed to be non-repairable and proprietary. Where can you see a device with its most vulnerable components easily changed out? Google once made a modular phone with parts that plugged into each other, making the parts swappable. Gone! Nowhere do the manufacturers tell you what the proprietary components are nor do they give out a set of test voltages and signals that can be checked. When Symple tries to bench test parts, they have one hand tied behind their backs because the devices and parts are designed to disintegrate on schedule and be unrepairable. You can’t get around this design bias.

    If any group wants to actually make a difference, instead of applying bandaids to dissolving situations, the basic theory of design must be changed. All devices must be designed from scratch to be maximally repairable and reusable. Only then will the attempts to extend the lives of computers, and other devices, really bear fruit. This would be an environmental movement of major magnitude. Merely enabling wasteful design by shaving off the sharp edges of brutally poor construction is not nearly the desirable and providential venture you clearly believe it to be.

    Please don’t kill the messenger. Go to for much more discussion.

  2. Mike Mike November 30, 2015

    @Paul Palmer

    While it is true our society is wasteful on a scale that is terrifying, I don’t believe what you are suggesting is really workable for electronics.

    Designs change, new manufacturing techniques enable smaller faster chips and larger storage devices that were previously impossible. To get the benefit of such changes, bus designs often need to change. This pushes changes to other chipsets and components, including peripherals. Simply saying “Make everything modular!” is naive at best and disingenuous otherwise. Say you make a chip removable: Great, now how do you propose to make the circuit board correspond to a new bus design without throwing it out and making a new one? No one has an answer for that.

  3. James Dixon James Dixon November 30, 2015

    > The problem is that electronic devices are designed to fall apart or become obsolete after a very short life.

    For your average laptop, that “short life” is somewhere around a minimum of 3-6 years. For a desktop, it’s in the 5-10 year range.

  4. Paul Palmer Paul Palmer November 30, 2015


    What you are doing Mike is what you are supposed to do by the wasters. You are taking a system which is meant for maximum waste and discard and you are using its assumptions to critique another, opposed system. You describe things as they are and say that no other way of design is possible. Of course not! All of those design restrictions you mentioned are the core of a system meant to create consumer demand for new products no matter what.

    I founded and ran a company finding new uses for all of the chemicals being excessed (you would say discarded) in the Bay Area. It was immensely successful. Chemicals were considered to be just as unreusable as the electronics you describe, with the added drawback that they were toxic, flammable and otherwise dangerous. I proved, by doing it, that the wasters were dead wrong.

    While I am a chemist, I am not an electronics engineer. The creation of a reusable electronics design would depend on the participation of the experts – electronic designers. Of course they would also need the support of a social transformation in thinking about profits versus defense of our planet.

    Two examples I can come up with: most magnets are critically dependent on neodymium, a rare earth that the “experts” (they aren’t!) consider to be critically rare. Many magnets, if not most of them, are used in loudspeakers of which there are millions in electronic devices, all going into dumps (or fires at best). Speakers are pretty routine in design. They could be recovered and reused. But no! They MUST be discarded and then China threatened if it won’t sell more neodymium to foreign manufacturers. Check it out.
    There is also a tremendous market and need for past generation devices outside of Europe and the US. Ditto for laboratory chemicals in which I did work. But supplying past generation devices to third world markets threatens markets for unneeded devices and excess profits. Far better to destroy slightly outmoded devices and force Africans etc. to come up with the big cash for iphones.

    What I have learned the hard way, by extensive analysis, is that once you decide to reduce wasteful design and intentional discard, you will find thousands of heretofore unnoticed and unused methods for building in reuse. You cannot start out, as you did, by truculently deciding it is impossible.

    What if every circuit diagram were published on the internet, without obfuscation of the components? Wouldn’t that help Symple to do bench testing?

    There are many more approaches than just modularization. Standardization is also powerful. As is public information and established reuse channels. You need to expand your thinking. Start with: “How would I make it happen?” and get past the: “I know it can’t be done.” negativity.

  5. Stew Bottorf Stew Bottorf November 30, 2015

    Jason Spisak got me twice. Almost twenty years ago I actually bought a Lycoris license and liked the product. Then is went away.

    Just this Spring I bought a Symple PC and recommended it to others who bought one too. Both our Symples are still working well although I converted mine to Linux Mint.

    Am I upset? Not really. Lycoris whetted my appetite for Linux that I still use in its much improved versions of today. My Symple is a reliable refurb much better than most XP-rework computers I’ve converted over the past year. I’m sorry to see them go.

  6. Mike Mike November 30, 2015

    @Paul Palmer

    Forgetting the big companies, even the maker community that is focused on small entirely open electronic designs faces the same issues. The problem is that the layout of circuits and interconnections between devices just isn’t something that lends itself to a lot of reuse or generic use.

    Can we do better? Sure. Can we eliminate forced obsolescence used by companies like Apple? If you can get popular buy-in, then sure. Can we extend older device lifetimes, sure…but by your own admission in your first comment, that is just a band-aid.

    The only way to reliably re-use electronics large scale is to produce them in such a way that the raw materials in them can be extracted without highly toxic and dangerous procedures. Modularization of design will not get you very far.

  7. John S John S November 30, 2015

    Unfortunately the EPA in its misguided directive to remove lead from solder was mandated that any electronics more than four years old can only go into a landfill. Refurbishing or reuse is impractical if not impossible.

  8. Eddie G. Eddie G. November 30, 2015

    Although PC’s and laptops do have a preconceived “shelf life” that is dictated to by the manufacturers. I believe that because of F.O.S.S. you can get a lot more years, maybe even decades from the hardware you own. It might mean things load a little slower, and that the hi-def, super-consolidated, video streaming app might not even run on the server, but you can still get use from the bare metal by using it for file storage, cloud server arrays, SQL database server use or anything else that might not require a strong processor. I have a laptop from the EARLY nineties (Gateway!) and it’s been running Fedora Linux on it since their 13/14 release, I am now running Fedora 23 on it! There’s nothing that requires a massive amount of processing power that I require. I can run YouTube videos, write emails, work on documents and spreadsheets while listening to music thats streaming all without it breaking a sweat. Are there machines that can run rings around it five times faster than light? Most assuredly. but since this laptop has fulfilled its purpose of being USEFUL long after its shelf life, I feel justified in using it. If more people and businesses decided to stop paying attention to the shiny and new, and just concentrated on getting the most usage from their current hardware then maybe there wouldn’t be such a pile of plastic and metal going to waste. I’ve helped a lot of people tur their so called “old” or “worn out” Windows XP / 7 machines into fast and lightweight (OS only! some of these machines are HEAVY!) machine that they se as their daily device with no problems. But I guess this type of thinking wouldn’t sit well with businesses. And lets face it “Waste management” IS a business!

  9. paul palmer paul palmer November 30, 2015

    @Mike and @ John

    Man, how did you guys get so stodgy and negative? The EPA makes some stupid decision that waste is wonderful and you just fall apart? That’s the point of it. You found one of the dumb supports for endless waste and instead of exulting that you now get it, you just fall on your knees in admiration of official government idiocy. And John can’t stop drooling over every obstacle, every difficulty he can pick out. I thought some of the people on this website wanted to look ahead to a future that could be designed better than today. Of course there are obstacles. So what! Finding the obstacles is the first step. That tells you what the plan needs to be dealing with. Then you ask yourself how to get around or over the obstacles. That becomes your plan for a better future. Stop crying in your beer about how hard it’s going to be. So you can’t get around all the money and waste and profit obsession. The point is to start talking about what needs to be done. Leave doing it for the next step. Until you understand the problem you have no chance of building anything better.

  10. Mike Mike November 30, 2015

    @Paul Palmer,

    You just crossed the line into insult territory. You don’t know shit about me and obviously don’t comprehend the real problems in the delusional fantasy you keep raving about.

    Make just one small electronic device that can be easily/completely repurposed…then we’ll talk. Until then, STFU.

  11. FOSS Force FOSS Force November 30, 2015

    @Mike We don’t usually moderate much on FOSS Force but…

    It doesn’t appear that Paul has “crossed the line into insult territory” and you say. He’s calmly made his case, which is obviously different from yours. Your reply, however, borders on being insulting and rude.

    A deep breath or two, or perhaps counting to ten might be called for. 🙂

  12. paul palmer paul palmer December 1, 2015

    I don’t know who you are or what your life is like but I do know what you’ve written. One objection after another.

    I already gave you an example about neodymium speaker magnets. I guess you didn’t read that. The US practically got into a trade war with China over rare earths until the Chinese recently backed down. They mine most of the rate earths in the world and the US forced them to sell the earths to all comers which they didn’t want to do because they can use it all themselves. We could have been conserving and recapturing magnets but no, we had to threaten another country so that we could keep them moving into dumps.

    I already told you: I’m not an electronics engineer but I did prove the concept with horrible, toxic, smelly dangerous, flammable chemicals that everyone said could only be thrown away. Do you think my critics sounded any less negative than your comments? My company was a big success in Oakland in the 1970’s.

    Maybe you’re an electronics designer. Are you? Instead of trying to throw roadblocks at other people, why don’t YOU sit down and try to figure out how wasteful and lousy designs could be changed for reuse. I’ve already given you many hints and you can get more principles on my website. Look under Principles. Look up the modular Google smartphone. Look up the computer that was designed to be disassembled without tools in five minutes. While you’re at it, try to find a circuit diagram for any phone or mother board. Then cogitate on what difference it could make if a repair guy could find one on the web. My computer guru gave up trying to repair my mother board twenty years ago because he just couldn’t guess at the circuits. Have you heard of conflict minerals? Little children give their lives to mine tantalum for capacitors so our batteries will last longer. What do we do about it? Wring out hands. That’s all! What hypocrisy! We could be insisting on capturing capacitors for reuse, especially big electrolytics but instead we throw them in a dump and then cry an ocean because those kids have to dig out another bucketful for the next capacitors. Tell me now about how impossible it is to capture capacitors.

    Make a deal! I’ll shut up when you bang your ingenuity on some reuse problems instead of just trying to tell everyone how design is impossible and can’t be changed. Of course, if you don’t try, you can’t succeed. As William Black likes to say about bank fraud – if you don’t look, you won’t find. Same idea.

  13. paul palmer paul palmer December 1, 2015

    An apology to John S…
    I used your name above as someone coming up with roadblocks. I should have said Mike instead. Sorry.

  14. FOSS Force FOSS Force December 1, 2015

    @paul palmer Perhaps you didn’t get the message. You’re both right and you both have valid points. And this discussion was really great until fingers started getting pointed and blame placed over what should have been a friendly discussion.

    For the record, Mike is a long time contributor to the comments on FOSS Force and is a valued member of the FOSS Force community. And although I don’t remember seeing Paul’s name in the comments, he too is welcome to join us and contribute to the discussion — civilly.

    At this point, I would ask that you both just agree to disagree. This discussion has degenerated to the point that to continue it would be futile. Give it a rest guys.

  15. Paul Palmer Paul Palmer December 1, 2015

    Thank you Christine. I strongly support moderated boards and this is a good illustration of that.

  16. Mike Mike December 2, 2015

    No insults?

    > “Man, how did you guys get so stodgy and negative?”

    > “you just fall on your knees in admiration of official government idiocy.”

    > “And John can’t stop drooling over every obstacle, every difficulty he can pick out.”

    (Paul retroactively directed that one at me.)

    >”Stop crying in your beer about how hard it’s going to be.”

    Those sound an awful lot like insults to me. Paul needs to learn a lot before his ideas will gain traction anywhere. I honestly believe he has no clue what he is actually suggesting.

    You can’t remake a microchip. I will go so far as to say (and not lightly, as I almost never use the word): It is impossible. You can repurpose an old computer to some extent, but Paul clearly indicates that he is not the solution he is looking for. Circuit boards are only marginally less reusable than microchips. To accomodate modern designs, we need multilayer pcb’s with delicate components throughout. You can’t modularize that. Not without increasing the size ten-fold or more. If you are fine with room sized computers that cost a mortgage on your house, then perhaps it can be done, and it would still become obsolete at some point and need to be discarded or recycled.

    Even supposing you surpass all the design problems, you need to deal with component failure. Even in the best design it will happen. You are still going to have to throw it away or recycle it at some point. Things break and fall apart. It’s called entropy and it is unavoidable. Any course of action which pretends we can ignore the actions of entropy is a fool’s errand.

    Yeah, I’m done.

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