Bloated Software Problem

BloatWare is the term often used to criticize software companies whose programs grow with each new version, taking up more disk space and/or requiring more memory and other system resources to run. No one can dispute that the operating systems and applications of today are much larger and more complex than those written twenty years ago. But it's also true that today's programs do a lot more, and in most cases do it better, than your grandfather’s programs.

Question is, are we buying faster computers just to handle half-baked Bloated software? It's easy to wax nostalgic about MS-DOS, an OS that required only a few megabytes of disk space (version 6.x needed about 3.5 MB) and could run on 512K (that's kilobytes, not megabytes) of memory. Programs were written in assembly language and only occupied a few “k” of space. On the other hand, the DOS environment and its apps certainly didn't have the bells and whistles you get with Vista or other graphical operating systems.

Still, there has been considerable "Bloat" since the advent of Windows. Windows 95 required only 8 MB of memory and took up less than 50 MB on your hard drive (we're starting with Windows 95 because Windows 3.x was not really an operating system in itself, but a graphical shell that was installed on top of MS-DOS). By the time we get to Windows XP, you need 128MB of RAM and one and a half gigs of disk space to barely run it (512MB of ram to run good).

Many complained that Vista took a Bloated leap in the wrong direction. Previously, memory requirements had more or less doubled with each new Windows OS: 8 MB for Windows 95, 24MB for Windows 98, 32MB for Windows Me, 64MB for Windows 2000, and 128MB for XP. Thus you might expect Vista to require 256MB of RAM, but to run properly, you really need a minimum of 1GB (4 gigs to run well), and hard disk requirements increased tenfold, to about 15GB.

These numbers sound pretty bad, when you look at them in a vacuum. But you also have to consider the advances in computer hardware over that time, and the falling prices of that hardware. In 1995, when I bought a computer to run Windows 95, a low priced system cost almost $2000. Today you can buy a computer that runs Vista for $500.

If you look at individual components, the difference is even more striking. I remember later upgrading my system by spending over $300 for a "huge" 8MB RAM chip (8MB was the amount of memory needed to run Windows 95). Today you can buy a 2 GB memory module (the amount of memory needed to run Vista) for under $40.

Then there's hard disk space. I can still recall the thrill of buying an enormous 1 GB hard disk for my Windows 95 computer, for around $350. Back then, I couldn't imagine how I would ever fill up all that space (of course, I had thought the same thing back in the 80s when I got my IBM PC with its gargantuan 10MB hard disk, too). Last weekend, Tom and I took a stroll through the local Fry's and came away with an external 1TB hard drive (that's 1024 times the size of my 1GB drive) - for $199. You can get an internal 1TB drive (more comparable to my 1GB drive) for under $150.

These days, what with 12 megapixel digital photos and high resolution videos and recorded TV programs, I no longer suffer from the delusion that we won't quickly fill up the space.

If you do the math, then, you'll see that the price per MB of memory has fallen from $37.50 in the mid 1990s to less than 3 cents, and the price per GB of hard disk space has fallen from $350 to under 15 cents. Even if you factor in inflation, that's quite a price difference. So, given the amounts of memory and disk space that are available to us at such low prices, does it really matter if operating systems and applications are subject to Bloat?

Some folks say yes. Others say software Bloat is inevitable. Most of us have heard of Moore's Law, which said that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubled every year, and was later extrapolated by others to mean that computer processing power doubles every year (or later, every 18 months). Parkinson's Law states that "resource requirements expand to consume the resources available." And that doesn't just apply to software developers; we're all guilty. Ever move into a new, bigger home that seems enormously spacious compared to your old one, only to find that a few years later, you've outgrown your house again?

Just because Bloat is the natural order of things, though, doesn't necessarily mean it's a good thing. Most of us packrats wish, from time to time, that we could get rid of all that junk and start over with a more minimalist approach. And not all packrat behavior is created equal, either. If you're using up your extra space by hoarding non-perishable food and medical supplies or housing collections of valuables that are increasing in value over time, that's different from keeping old, useless magazines or boxes of paid bills dating back to the 1970s (as I found in my mom's house when we started cleaning it out after her death).

Likewise, software Bloat can be caused by different things: less efficient (but easier to use) development tools (for example, writing code in Visual C++ vs. writing it in lean, mean - but more difficult - assembly language), just plain sloppy coding by less skilled programmers, or "featuritis," the addition of more and more features to the software in an effort to please all of the people, all of the time. Older versions of Windows didn't have built in music players and burners, built in firewalls and MalWare protections, built in graphics manipulation programs, and so forth. You had to install applications to do all that. As users demand that more and more functionality come with the operating system, it's bound to increase its size and resource requirements.

Bill Gates, in a recent speech in Asia, said that the "Internet service revolution" that will lead to machines will lots of low-cost storage and server capacity will allow developers to "write software in even more ambitious ways, eliminating the last constraints we have."

Presumably that means programs will be even bigger (and, we hope, correspondingly better) in the future.

Of course, there's another definition of BloatWare, which refers not to the size of the OS or any individual program, but rather to the amount of extra software that computer vendors install on their systems. When you boot up a brand new computer, you usually find yourself with a bunch of "bonus" software that you neither want nor need - often limited time trial versions of popular programs such as Norton, Quickbooks, Office, photo and music programs and software from national ISPs. You've probably had the frustrating experience of spending hours getting rid of all those unwanted programs that use up hard disk space and may slow down the performance of your computer. Sometimes, even when you feel you have deleted them, they come back six months later and ask you to install, update, or pay for it, not to mention the resources it takes whilst hiding in your system. (That’s why we format drives on new system).

Some hardware vendors are catching on that this does not make their customers happy. In 2007, Dell started offering the option, when you buy online, to check a box that would block the installation of what many in the industry not-so-affectionately call "CrapWare." However, this only applied to certain models of Dell computers. Early this year, Sony came out with their "Fresh Start" program that would let customers buy some models without the TrialWare and "free" software. They caused quite a controversy at first by charging $50 for the privilege, but in March 2008 announced that Fresh Start would be a free option.