Software // Enterprise Applications
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12/11/2001
09:41 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Rethinking 'Software Bloat'

Fred Langa takes a trip into his software archives and finds some surprises--at two orders of magnitude.

Reader Randy King recently performed an unusual experiment that provided some really good end-of-the-year food for thought:

I have an old Gateway here (120 MHz, 32 Mbytes RAM) that I "beefed up" to 128 Mbytes and loaded with--get ready--Win 95 OSR2. OMIGOD! This thing screams. I was in tears laughing at how darn fast that old operating system is. When you really look at it, there's not a whole lot missing from later operating systems that you can't add through some free or low-cost tools (such as an Advanced Launcher toolbar). Of course, Win95 is years before all the slop and bloat was added. I am saddened that more engineering for good solutions isn't performed in Redmond. Instead, it seems to be "code fast, make it work, hardware will catch up with anything we do" mentality.

It was interesting to read about Randy's experiment, but it started an itch somewhere in the back of my mind. Something about it nagged at me, and I concluded there might be more to this than meets the eye. So, in search of an answer, I went digging in the closet where I store old software.

Factors Of 100
It took some rummaging, but there in a dusty 5.25" floppy tray was my set of install floppies for the first truly successful version of Windows--Windows 3.0--from more than a decade ago.

When Windows 3.0 shipped, systems typically operated at around 25 MHz or so. Consider that today's top-of-the-line systems run at about 2 GHz. That's two orders of magnitude--100 times--faster.

But today's software doesn't feel 100 times faster. Some things are faster than I remember in Windows 3.0, yes, but little (if anything) in the routine operations seems to echo the speed gains of the underlying hardware. Why?

The answer--on the surface, no surprise--is in the size and complexity of the software. The complete Windows 3.0 operating system was a little less than 5 Mbytes total; it fit on four 1.2-Mbyte floppies. Compare that to current software. Today's Windows XP Professional comes on a setup CD filled with roughly 100 times as much code, a little less than 500 Mbytes total.

That's an amazing symmetry. Today, we have a new operating system with roughly 100 times as much code as a decade ago, running on systems roughly 100 times as fast as a decade ago.

By itself, those "factors of 100" are worthy of note, but they beg the question: Are we 100 times more productive than a decade ago? Are our systems 100 times more stable? Are we 100 times better off?

While I believe that today's software is indeed better than that of a decade ago, I can't see how it's anywhere near 100 times better. Mostly, that two-orders-of-magnitude increase in code quantity is not matched by anything close to an equal increase in code quality. And software growth without obvious benefit is the very definition of "code bloat."

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