Bloatware

Software bloat is a process whereby successive versions of a computer program include an increasing proportion of unnecessary features that are not used by end users, or generally use more system resources than necessary, while offering little or no benefit to its users.

Software developers in the 1970s had severe limitations on disk space and memory. Every byte and clock cycle counted, and much work went into fitting the programs into available resources. Achieving this efficiency was one of the highest values of computer programmers, and the best programs were often called ‘elegant’; —seen as a form of high art.

This situation has now reversed. Resources are perceived as cheap, and rapidity of coding and headline features for marketing are seen as priorities. In part, this is because technological advances have since increased processing capacity and storage density by orders of magnitude, while reducing the relative costs by similar orders of magnitude (i.e. Moore’s Law). Additionally, the spread of computers through all levels of business and home life has produced a software industry many times larger than it was in the 1970s. Programs are now usually churned out by teams, directed by committees in software factories where each programmer works on only a part of the whole. Thus today, the highest value is often the adherence to a predetermined structure that makes it compliant, —with subroutines as interchangeable as piston rods. Inelegant, even sloppy code is to some degree hidden from the end users by the increasing brute force and speed of modern computers.

Finally, software development tools and approaches often result in changes throughout a program to accommodate each feature, leading to a large-scale inclusion of code which affects the main operation of the software, and is required in order to support functions that themselves may be only rarely used. In particular, the advances in resources available have led to tools which allow easier development of code, again; with less priority given to end efficiency.

Another cause of bloat is independently competing standards and products, which can create a demand for integration. There are now more operating systems, browsers, protocols, and storage formats than there were before, causing bloat in programs due to interoperability issues. For example, a program that once could only save in text format is now demanded to save in HTML, XML, XLS, CSV, PDF, DOC, and other formats.

Niklaus Wirth has summed up the situation in ‘Wirth’s Law,’ which states that software speed is decreasing more quickly than hardware speed is increasing.

In his 2001 essay software engineer Joel Spolsky argues that while 80% of the users only use 20% of the features (a variant on the Pareto principle), each one uses different features. Thus, ‘lite’ software editions turn out to be useless for most, as they miss the one or two special features that are present in the ‘bloated’ version. Spolsky sums the article with a quote by Jamie Zawinski referring to the Mozilla Application Suite (which later became Netscape): ‘Convenient though it would be if it were true, Mozilla is not big because it’s full of useless crap. Mozilla is big because your needs are big. Your needs are big because the Internet is big. There are lots of small, lean web browsers out there that, incidentally, do almost nothing useful. But being a shining jewel of perfection was not a goal when we wrote Mozilla.’

Software bloat may also be a symptom of the second-system effect, described by Fred Brooks in ‘The Mythical Man-Month.’ The second-system effect refers to the tendency of small, elegant, and successful systems to have elephantine, feature-laden monstrosities as their successors.

Apple’s iTunes has been accused of being bloated as part of its efforts to turn it from a program that plays media to an e-commerce and advertising platform. Critics have accused the company of hypocrisy in its advertising attacks on Windows for similar practices.

Microsoft Windows has also been criticized as being bloated – with reference to Windows Vista, Microsoft engineer Eric Traut commented that ‘A lot of people think of Windows as this large, bloated operating system, and that’s maybe a fair characterization, I have to admit. … But at its core, the kernel, and the components that make up the very core of the operating system, is actually pretty streamlined.’ Former PC World editor Ed Bott has expressed skepticism, noting that almost every single operating system that Microsoft has ever sold had been criticized as ‘bloated’ when it first came out; even those now regarded as the exact opposite, such as MS-DOS.

CD- and DVD-burning applications such as Nero Burning ROM have become criticized for being bloated. Superfluous features not specifically tailored to the end user are sometimes installed by default through express setups.

A number of technology blogs have also covered the issue of increased bloatware on cell phones. However, they refer to a different issue, specifically that of wireless carriers loading phones with software that, in many cases, cannot be easily deleted, if at all. This has been most frequently cited with respect to Android devices, although this phenomenon exists on phones running many other operating systems.

Some applications, such as Mozilla Firefox and Winamp, package additional functionality in plug-ins, extensions or add-ons which are downloaded separately from the main application. These can be created by the software developer and often by third parties. Plug-ins enable extra functionality which might have otherwise been packaged in the main program.

Allowing extensions reduces the space used on any one machine, because even though the application plus the ‘plug-in interface’ plus all the plug-ins is larger than the same functionality compiled into one monolithic application, it allows each user to install only the particular add-on features required by that user, rather than force every user to install a much larger monolithic application that includes 100% of the available features.

Sometimes software becomes bloated because of ‘creeping featurism’ (Zawinski’s Law of Software Envelopment), also called bullet-point engineering. One way to reduce that kind of bloat is described by the Unix philosophy: ‘Write programs that do one thing and do it well.’

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