digital inflation

I spent most of the morning retiring an old Compaq Presario server; it’s perhaps fifteen years old. It was in with some things in storage and I thought I’d get rid of it since the hardware wasn’t even compatible with an Ubuntu server install attempt.

Less Was More

I realize in going through the motions of archiving all my many coding projects from years ago just how much bloat we’ve taken into our computers and our computer languages these days. I think the laptop I’m on right now has 8GB of RAM and this NT 4.0 Server only had 384MB of RAM, running instances of IIS, SQL Server, NT Server, WINS, DNS Server as well as a VSS server. It also hosted QuickBooks Pro 99, Adobe Photoshop 5.0 LE and Visual Studio. Come to think of it, it also easily ran my own NT services, custom-made IIS ISAPI filters and custom SQL Server extended stored procedures that I’d written. It had Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat and Illustrator, Flash-development tools by Macromedia.

It ran all this on 384MB of memory.  And those fifteen prolific years’ worth of accumulated everything only resulted in about 4GB of storage, perhaps the equivalent of a mere three movies on my laptop now. I almost have to laugh as I store it on a terabyte external drive.

Digital Inflation


Seriously, though, what have we gained by making everything so heavy? I recall being able to accomplish anything I needed to do in that older version of Adobe Photoshop and using a fraction of that 384MB of memory. Just now, it took Adobe Photoshop CC about five minutes to load up so that I could paste this graphic in and start to work on it. I select the Spot Healing tool and begin clicking.  One, two, three… and then I wait as the tool freezes up and I have to wait for the spinning cursor to resolve itself. I then Step Backward to remove the garbage that the tool added and try to repeat, only this time slower. This sucks. I know that older version from over ten years ago didn’t do this.

So now, every day we get faster and faster microprocessors with multiple cores. But that Windows 10 upgrade from this year demanded that we have no less than 4GB of RAM just to install it. Why?

The answer is that we’re under a form of inflation that’s taken over the digital world. The same resources we had last year just aren’t good enough.

Back in this post I suggested that open source projects are suffering from this bloat, too. Big companies like Google believe that programs have to be big to be good. I disagree. Sometimes quality and project size are in direct opposition with each other. The more code you have, the more code that could be potentially bad.

Who Do We Blame?

Is it the microprocessor manufacturers who are behind this? I don’t think so. How about the operating system makers like Microsoft and Apple? Probably. I do know that .Net is a huge, bloated layer of code that’s supposed to be Microsoft’s version of Java. But the reason for both Java and .Net is to write machine-independent code. And since nobody really writes .Net code to run on an Apple computer or on a Unix box then what’s the point?

And now that .Net has seen its heyday Microsoft is ready to do the “new, new thing” which is to chase Apple’s app-based iTunes-delivered store. So we as consumers picked up this thick layer of code in the form of .Net which honestly does little for us. And yet most of the software written for a Windows-based computer has to use this foundation. No wonder it takes so much to do so little.

I’d like to blame Adobe’s bloat on all the code which is designed to permission their new subscription-based model. Try to buy Adobe Acrobat now and you’re left with the choice of paying $500 or something like $20-per-month. Neither option is worth it, in my humble opinion. Much of that startup lag I mentioned before could be the client app talking to mothership Adobe to see if my licensing this month is paid.


Honestly, the pendulum has to swing back the other way. Consumers will reject subscription-based pricing models, will turn in greater numbers to open source operating systems and desktop tools and eventually the big players will come back with their apologies and revised ideas about how to win back their former customers.

In earlier times you couldn’t expect an average computer person to use a command line interface. But younger computer users are trained in public school and they’re not so timid. Strangely enough, Microsoft is turning to a similar mechanism to do advanced things in their software using PowerShell commands. And there is even an option to install their server software without a GUI environment at all… like a UNIX server, if you think about it.

The original IBM PC didn’t have a Windows interface since that didn’t come until many years later. The very popular (free) Ubuntu server software now does the same. You’d be surprised how much work the computer can do when it’s not unnecessarily displaying graphics.

I believe that we’ll eventually build simpler interfaces. The Windows 10 “Metro” menu and those of smartphones now are visually simpler if you think about it. They’re essentially flat squares that you can push with your finger rather than the fussy-little, 3D-styled buttons from twenty years ago in Windows 95.

Hardware like Google Glass may remove the need for such specialized interfaces. Since this hardware doesn’t include a keyboard your ability to interact with the interface is limited to pointing your head toward a spot on the screen and holding it until it’s selected. When they add voice commands to this interface we’ll see yet another revolution in how we expect software to behave. Hopefully we’ll get to the point where there are no more buttons to push—all commands would be accomplished verbally in your own language of choice.

Back to simpler interfaces, however, must we have all the visual candy? Could we not focus on the work to be done, the spoken commands to trigger that work and remove everything else but the text-based status? On today’s hardware we could do that now if we really wanted to. But since companies like Apple/Microsoft/Google want their store-like delivery model we’ll likely not get what we want unless we build it ourselves.


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