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Digital Bloat – Is it here to stay?

by Steve Macatee

Digital Bloat is also the problem where software programs require more and more hard drive space just to do seemingly simple things.  What the future of it?

Bloat can mean different things. Some use bloat to mean lots of features – as in, you can do everything with the software at the expense of bogging down the few things you need to do quickly and well. This is the nature of software since new software features are perceived to be “free” by marketing departments, and more is always better, right? After all, no added hardware expense is incurred to allow an animated panting dog to help viewers eyes know where to find Help topics on a cluttered computer monitor. An interesting book on how bloat and poor product usability comes about is Alan Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.

Bloat is also the problem where software programs require more and more hard drive space just to do seemingly simple things. The tools our collective pals at Microsoft (and their partners) provide for manufacturers to develop Windows-compatible software programs continue to force us all to experience bloat. This translates to long, administrator-rights-required install times and lots of hard disc space. Luckily hard disc space is less money than it used to be, but time is still expensive money.

The reason Microsoft and Intel and AMD are what they are is precisely because they keep their bloated technology alive and working together which provides them a recurring revenue stream as technology continues to evolve at an ever accelerating rate. This is by design, not because customers ask for it or that customers or even our little industry’s products need it. A favorite quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – Henry Ford.

As an example, a common software development tool these days is Microsoft’s .NET framework. This Microsoft product gives developers much easier access to just about everything in any PC in any version of Windows from Windows 98 to the latest Windows 7. That’s a lot to handle, so it takes considerable hard disc space. New computers typically have some version of the .NET framework pre-installed. Older machines may have none of it, thus newer software products install the needed .NET parts on any given PC.

Microsoft’s .NET framework requires about 500 megabytes of disc space. But if you’re using a completely updated Vista machine, you already have all of this 500 Meg installed. This means there is a considerable time difference between installing a new .NET-based program on Vista or 7 versus the same install on Windows XP. An XP install on a slower machine can take some insane time, like 20 minutes – yet it’s out of all our hands. This does not include the myriad of updated operating system files .NET would need on a given PC before .NET works. We are all stuck with this problem and it seems nothing can be done to solve it other than acceptance. We’ll all continue to have it; it is unlikely to fix itself and there is technically no way us manufacturers can work around it. So I think of bloat like taxes: unfortunate, but required.