“You lot aren’t programmers, you’re just coders”.

The following article appears on computerworld.com.

His name was Hugh and he was an IBM salesman – his pithy quote, first name and double-breasted shiny suit are about all I can remember of him. I was fresh-faced and 2 months or so into a job with a firm I thought embodied the pinnacle of computing prowess. In the middle of a PL/1 course the bosses had decided to inject some ‘reality’ by having a senior member of the company’s sales force deliver a lecture. He was good, I’ll give him that. A full four years before Alec Baldwin’s great performance as the hard-nosed ‘motivator’ Blake in the film Glengarry Glen Ross, Hugh was there laying it on the line to some spotty kids straight out of school. Unlike Baldwin, Hugh had no need to ask me derisively what I drove: the year was 1988; I was seventeen and didn’t have a licence.

baldwin2“What’s this?” he said holding up a picture of what I thought was a freezer. Blank looks from everyone in the room. It was an AS/400 and we didn’t know it, but this non-descript hunk of metal was about to swell Hugh’s pockets with gargantuan commission for the next 10 years. A point he was all too keen on reminding us of . . . when he wasn’t dissing our profession that is:

“Computers have so much memory you can do whatever you like. There’s no skill to it any more.”

In those days 10 megs of RAM was considered opulent but he was right. The generation before me is probably the last that had to worry constantly about application development where memory management was as crucial as your algorithms. Using an integer to hold a boolean value wasn’t just lazy, it could end up crashing the box. Keeping your code tight n’ lean was a source of pride as well as a procedural necessity. It had the desirable side effect of enforcing discipline and keeping the size of your executables down too.

Over the past fifteen years though, we’ve seen Hugh’s maxim taken to ridiculous levels. I’m talking about bloatware. It’s basically software with two main features: a whopping, disk-munching footprint and a ratio of features to features-actually-used-by-normal people well over 2:1. It probably passes your typical end-user by — until the crashes and hangs come that is. Code gorged with unneeded options equals more scope for bugs which equals more problems: it’s the bane of all our lives and programmers the world over, including ex-coders like myself, put up with it.

Sometimes the bloat is forced upon us: iTunes plus resources comes to a ludicrous 80 megs on disk but unless you inhabit the shady world of cracked iPhones you can’t speak proper to your device without it. Meanwhile, unasked-for fatty deposits – Genius feature anyone?- build up year-on-year, clogging up our computer arteries under the dubious guise of ‘essential software updates’.

I think it was software guru Peter van den Linden who said the only people to get rich out of the internet were disk manufacturers. He had a point too. As memory and disk sizes increased it became gradually more and more old-fashioned and a little bit passé to worry about your RAM and disk usage: tight ‘n lean became spread n’ preen and as application developers expanded to fill the space left by hardware’s incredible progress, the rot set in with the systems programmers too. An unquestioning rest of the world mostly went along with it. I recall a nifty server redundancy application sold by Novell some years ago that came on a single floppy including the manual. A disgruntled customer called: how could the software be worth the price charged seeing as it only came on a 3.5 disk? Oy vey.

instructionsPart of the problem is the programming technology. 20 years ago you wrote a programme, metaphorically speaking, close to the metal. ‘C’ programmers could manipulate data with great dexterity most of the time and for those really tricky bits you could always drop into assembler and delve right into the hardware. With today’s web-based applications and fancy coding libraries – themselves prone to bloat – you’re writing several levels removed from the machine and the opportunity to develop tight code even if you wanted to, just ain’t there. I suspect many of today’s whizz-kids in the software houses of Bangalore wouldn’t know a JNE instruction if it came up and bit ’em.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-progress. There’s no way Windows 7 could be as lean as 3.11 and still take advantage of the fabulous advances in hardware we’ve seen over the last decade. But if you’re telling me a glorified MP3 player has to be 80 megs in size then I say enough!

I’m beginning to sense I’m not alone.

Google announced a new operating system called Chrome OS just a few weeks ago. There were lots of TV headlines about how the company was “setting the stage for a battle with Microsoft” and much speculation about when and where it would be ready but what caught my eye was the bit about how it would “start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds” Nice, I thought, but I’ll believe it when I see it was my overall reaction as I waited for my PC to painstakingly start. But since then I’ve had a bit of a rethink. Over the past few weeks it’s become apparent that there’s a confluence and it’s been happening for quite some time, fans of the film Highlander might want to call it a Quickening, but the cut here is all about lard-laden software and nothing to do with Sean Connery’s head.

It started off with people grumbling about boot up times within the geek community. But at some point in the past few years, non-technical users – the vast majority of the world’s computer owners – started to notice too and what was an imperceptible malaise amongst us techies, at some point morphed into general dissatisfaction within the civilian population. I can’t remember the first time I heard my Mum say “it takes so long to boot up” but I wish I’d noted down exact time supine acceptance of poor performance became an out-and-out complaint. Google noticed the grumbling last year when they released the Chrome browser (42 megs on disk from a fresh install incidentally – must do better) which promised a more lightweight approach, but the signs are all around us.

Take Apple’s iPhone applications or ‘apps’. There’s no doubt the company’s encouragement of development for their device has added to its popularity but a side-effect of this little software cottage industry has been to subtly reintroduce a concept that has been lost for over a decade: buying software to do a specific job. Now I don’t want to over-egg the pudding here: the top selling app in December last year was a game that let you shoot tanks but whether you want to call it ‘install-on-demand’ or ‘apps-on-tap’, the future here is lean, mean and functionally targeted — in the case of iFart very much so. You want to find out what’s on when at your cinema? You download an app called ‘Cinema Times’ to do it. Simple eh? What you don’t do is download ‘Apple Entertainment Finder V7.2: New York edition with ballet add-on and service pack 3’. The age of bloat is withering. If I want to know where opera’s playing I’ll download iVerdi for $1.99 and not before thank you very much.

User habits and expectations are changing. The name of the game is now instant, or least minimally-delayed, gratification. We can see it too in e-Mail habits. With social-networking sites I don’t have to start up my e-Mail client, find an old message from the person I want to communicate with, copy and paste their address from there into a new e-Mail and then start writing . . . I just hit ‘send a message’ in my almost-certain-to-be-already-running browser and it’s there. I’d say in the last year I’ve lost 10% of my e-Mail traffic to Facebook. Privacy issues aside, as our work space moves from desktop-bound heavyweight apps to browsers and hand-held devices it’s a number that’s only going to rise. Even the hardware manufacturers have noticed. You can get motherboards now with nifty pre-boot features that let you get onto the web and messaging your pals before Windows even boots up. I can only imagine the palpitations when Steve Ballmer heard of that.

Of course if you’re one of those people with an Intel iCore7 chip and an internet connection so fast your local college borrows bandwidth then this whole article will generate a giant ‘Huh?’ Lucky you, but that’s not what the world is running. People want to spend $600 on a laptop — they expect it to work and increasingly, will not stand for software that fulfills the programmer’s desire to show off instead of meeting their requirements.

The big corporations need to respond faster. It doesn’t matter if your software is an all-singing, all-dancing cure for the world’s ills; customers now know that anything that comes on more than one DVD or takes more than 50 seconds to download is not necessarily going to be healthy for their system. If Chrome OS ends up booting in under 5 seconds then I want Windows 8 to do it in less than 3, although I suspect Windows 7 is the last release we’ll ever see of this monolithic behemoth of bloat. People don’t Windows anymore, they want light and breezy Mediterranean style shutters they can push open with a finger. If Redmond won’t deliver then someone else will.

Hugh’s generous pay may well now have become a humungous pension but as he watches from his villa in Barbados, let’s show him programming as a discipline is returning and disrobing itself Clark Kent-style of any negative connotations it may once have had. Let’s bring back the cycle-shavers, those geeks who used to agonise for hours over particular instructions depending on how many megahertz they used, let’s get back in the gym and re-emerge leaner, fitter and ready to take on these rightly-dissatisfied users. The online world’s population is multiplying and the natives are restless.


4 Comments so far

  1. CurtainDog on August 7, 2009 1:16 am

    I prefer to blame sales and marketing for bloatware:

    “Computers have so much memory you can say they do whatever you like. There’s no skill to it any more.”

  2. Bloke on August 7, 2009 5:55 am

    Dear Mr Coletti;
    Sir I’ll have you know that I think you are wonderful! Actually make that stupendiously gagantuan in scrotty content

    You dear sir have parroted my sentiment and loathing of modern software with eloquence and grace.
    I have been in this game for 26yrs and I have witnessed the disturbing trend toward uselessware
    with wide eyed amazement during the past 12yrs.
    Flash was part of a camera to improve lighting, Chrome was applied to car bumpers, Windows kept the rain & elements out and Penguins were little birds whom loved ice, which by the way once was a substance made by freezing water.
    I’m Sorry I don’t mean to rant but you have evoked an emotion in me – Does this mean I am now an EMO.
    I believe I have had an emotion once or twice in the past, it was when I unwrapped my very first 1 megabyte ram module or it could have been the installation of my very first hard disk drive with a whole 8mb capacity or was it my very first colour monitor & 512kb video card.
    Life wasn’t simpler then it was just so much easier!

  3. Pete Connolly on November 27, 2009 9:37 pm

    Case in point Paul: yesterday I downloaded the latest NVidia drivers for Windows 7 64 bit. File size on disk? 133MB. For a video driver, plus the assorted crap that is a must have these days for viewing you PCs output on the huge LCD monitor that you simply must have.


  4. pcoletti on November 28, 2009 1:05 pm

    Are you sure about that Pete? Even by today’s standards that seems excessive. Maybe there was a massive PDF manual inside or drivers for other platforms perhaps?

    How are you finding Win 7 64 by the way? I’m thinking of buying it for me new system.

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