February 15, 2009

What's Growing Faster? Software Bloat or PC Capabilities?

There is an old adage in the storage business. No matter how large you make the hard disk, users will find a way to fill it. The same seems true in the bandwidth and networking business - build a bigger pipe, and customers will find applications that use it up. The same concept extends to me as a consumer, for my traditional software experience. While my laptop is tremendously more capable than its predecessors of 2, 5 or 10 years ago, it sure doesn't seem like the software loads any more quickly, and I still find myself closing applications or forcing them to quit when the whole thing grinds to a halt.

Back in late 1998 after I got a first-generation iMac, complete with a then-acceptable 32 megabytes of RAM and a 4 gigabyte hard disk, I marveled at the gargantuan install needed for the latest version of Microsoft Office. I remember specifically telling a friend to just wait... as the next one would take more than a gigabyte of space. Sure enough, that's practically accepted, and now, it's not too uncommon to see downloads, and even software updates, that are in the hundreds of megabytes.

But the issue is less about capacity and more about the perception of speed. Yes, my laptop can do more than its forefathers. It can do new things with the Web and with video that were never before possible. But booting Microsoft Office, Adobe PhotoShop, FireFox and other products still manages to slow down my system to a crawl. It's gotten to the point that I've even eliminated possible reasons for the slowdown. I hardly ever boot into VMware Fusion any more, to run Microsoft Outlook. I stopped using an external monitor at work, and try to recharge my iPhone only when I don't need full use of my MacBook Pro. And that doesn't even extend to other RAM and processor hungry apps, like one of my personal favorites, TweetDeck.

For whatever reason, it seems that software developers have, for the most part, chosen to add features, and not optimize for speed. I don't think it took more time to boot Microsoft Word 5.1 on my old Performa than it takes to boot Microsoft Word 2008 on my MacBook Pro, even if the Megahertz speed on the processor has increased from 33 MHz to 2.2 GHz, and the RAM from 24 Megabytes to 2 Gigabytes. And lest you think I'm picking on Microsoft, Apple's iPhoto has also been a slow to load memory hog in its own right.

If somebody told me ten years ago that I could increase my processor speed by 1,000 percent, and my RAM by about the same amount, I would have expected to be able to hit "Select All" on my Applications folder and then "Open" to run them all at once. But there's no way. At this point, even with my current machine, I probably can run Mail, iTunes, a Web browser and one more application without slowness. Add one or two more apps to the mix, and we're in spinning wheel city.

In one my recent tirades against how often my machine was slowing down, I heard the all too common reply: "Time for a new one?" but the answer should be no. It's time the pace of the treadmill whereby hardware needs to speed up to handle the new software should slow. Get it to work, and get it to work fast. Please.