The Love Bloat

Hurrah for enormous software programs, filled with useless features, that don’t run very fast.

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t read in the press … or some Microsoft customer sidles up to me … or even my girlfriend says, “Hey, Shuman, why is Microsoft software so bloated, so full of junk, sucking up megs of space on my hard drive, hogging memory, and taking forever to load! The toolbar buttons look like they were lifted from the cockpit of an F-16.” My grouchy critics are ramping up again as the very large Office 2000 software suite hits the stores: “Shuman, why don’t you and the other boy developers at Microsoft write some trim and tight code?”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The problem with software today is not that it is bloated. The problem is that it’s not bloated enough!

What is bloat? Bloat is the American dream: bigger, better, and everywhere all at once. Supersize it! From VCRs to food processors to Ford Expeditions, industry has historically provided consumers with features to have, not necessarily to use. How many of you have programmed your VCR? Minced carrots with your Cuisinart? Or gone off-roading in your SUV?

Why should software be any different? Do you really think software developers add features just for fun, like some cackling tormentor? If only that were the case. Sadly, it is you, the customer, who demands bloat, forever clamoring for new features. Software companies take your wish lists seriously, and then make them happen. It’s like the violence-in-the-media argument: We hate it, but we buy it.

Now, I don’t deny that software is getting, um, alarmingly large. A complete installation of Office 2000 requires 200 megabytes of hard-disk space. This compares to the puny installation requirement of 5 megs to 10 megs of hard-disk space for a similar array of DOS applications, circa 1988: WordPerfect, Lotus 123, dBase, Crosstalk, etc.

But thanks to Moore’s Law and its corollaries, computer power continues to double every 18 months and prices keep falling. Most computer users want to do fancy new things with their speedy Pentium chips and mongolarge hard drives, not just run their old applications faster. So if computers are getting more powerful, shouldn’t we developers harness that capacity?

The anti-bloat whiners would have you believe that Microsoft is coercing them into using our extralarded software products! I call their bluff. The elegance of the Windows 98 operating system is that it runs practically every application from the DOS days and all those goofy Windows 3.1 programs. If you want to run unbloated legacy programs such as WordStar for Windows or Bitcom for DOS instead of new applications, be my guest. (Also, you lovers of legacy applications should know that one of the reasons Windows 95 and Windows 98 are so “bloated” is so that they can run the old applications.)

It is precisely because users can ignore the new releases from Microsoft or Lotus or Corel that the software industry works overtime to add new features to software, features that will convince users to spend $300 on an upgrade to do the same computing as they’re doing now, only with more bells and whistles and excitement. The day that Microsoft fails to convince you to upgrade–i.e., to buy a product that the malcontents call bloated–is the day that Redmond becomes a ghost town.

Most bloatware complaints come from users who own 2- to 3-year-old machines. They don’t understand that the new (bloated) versions of software are meant for the new 400-megahertz machines and the wickedly fast machines to come in the next 18 months–including 1-gigahertz computers–not their Pentium 133 doorstops. Or the complainers single out features that they never use, such as AutoSummarize in Word or the Journal feature in Outlook (that can slow even the fastest computer to a crawl). My advice to these complainers: Turn these features off or ignore them.

Having praised bloat, let me confide that when I worked on the Microsoft Outlook team, bloat was my biggest enemy. A mean boss named Biff routinely yelled hurtful things at me when I wrote indulgent, fat code, because his bosses wanted programs to load and work quickly. Outlook SWAT teams swooped down daily to reduce the size of our code. I remember endless hallway discussions about how to balance the demand for lean and quick code against the bloat required to add new and nifty features. (We were ultimately successful: If you compare Outlook 2000 to the first version, Outlook 97, you’ll see a vast improvement in performance and stability. You’ll also see a lot more cool features, such as HTML mail and Preview Pane, to name but two.)

The struggle between concise code and bloated code plays out under the threat of a deadline. If our software is occasionally too fat, we developers fall back on the same excuse philosopher Blaise Pascal offered three centuries ago for his verbose letters: “I have only made this [letter] longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

I f you’re truly anti-bloat, there’s a whole subgenre of dainty, low-bloat computers out there for you: The PalmPilot and Windows CE handheld devices. They pack a lot a power into little boxes, but let’s not kid anybody: Sometimes you can make do with a bicycle, but other times you need a car. A fast car. A fast car with a big noisy engine and a bone-crushing CD sound system. A Bloatmobile.

I began this column with the provocative thesis that software isn’t anywhere near bloated enough. By that I meant that if we software developers were really doing our jobs instead of resting and vesting our stock options, word processors would have already bloated into 99.999 percent reliable voice-recognition software. Your computer would have fused the functions of your telephone, television, and fax machine into one seamless whole. Your computer would have become the instantly searchable repository of all your correspondence, financial transactions, data searches, and phone conversations. Plus, it would be making smart connections between your data and actions. For instance, it will tell me, “Hey, Shuman, you can get a better auto insurance policy from GEICO.” Or, “Hey, Shuman, lay off the fatty, fried food, why doncha? You want to get bloated or something?”