Stop the real SaaS -- software as a sponge -- and give me back my hardware, please

The Commodore 64 celebrates its thirtieth birthday this month. That’s 64 kilobytes for around $600. A massive amount of RAM at the time. And for another $600 you could buy a 5.25-inch floppy disk drive, which could store 170kB on a disk. Programs loaded completely into RAM so that you could remove the program disk from the drive and insert another one to store data. Where can you get a word processor or database that will run in 64k now? Yes, of course we’re routinely doing things now that were only distant dreams back then. But I began my computing experience running my business on just such a Commodore 64.

By 1986 mass market PC clones featured a colossal 512k of RAM and a 4.77MHz processor. But although that was a massive step forward, in no time you needed to upgrade to 640k RAM, and then find ways of using the extended memory registers between 640k and 1MB. In 1990, Windows 3.0 needed 7MB of disk space -- so you’d need a hard drive to run it, which not everyone had.

What’s the point of all this (personal) history? Consider that Windows 8 requires at least 20GB of disk space, and ask if you’re really getting nearly 3,000 times the value for all those extra requirements.

Of course there are many programs that really need that extra power, and enable us to do things we couldn’t do before, but that’s not really what I’m banging on about here.

Yes, everything looks prettier. Yes, it’s easier to do more sophisticated page layout, but basically, the basic experience of office functions is not really all that different from the way it was. We need the extra power to run the parts that make everything look pretty.

Lazy Ways

Now I’m a sucker for all of this as much as the next person, but do you think that with hardware 5,000-10,000 times more powerful (or more) we should still be waiting for programs to load and do their thing? Why is the software not 5,000 times more powerful, too?

Because programmers are human, and lazy like the rest of us. Give ‘em some more RAM and they’ll use it, not always to make their program run faster, but so they don’t have to spend time on making their code more efficient. No longer do we have people struggling to get a whole air traffic control system into four lines of machine code (I exaggerate, slightly). Instead, people say “everyone has 8GB of RAM and 2TB hard drives now. Why not make use of them?”

It’s the same on the Internet. I’m not suggesting that we should restrict ourselves to text-only web sites, but we could probably all do more to reduce the size of graphics files, and the bandwidth requirements of streaming video or those compulsory Flash animations that you still can’t get away from. Not everyone has a T1 or better Internet connection. And I really shouldn’t have to wait for any web site to load when I have a 60Mb/s fiber connection (I know it can only go as fast as the server can deliver, but why is the server being asked to deliver so much?)

You would have thought that mobile devices -- smartphones and tablets -- with their reduced amount of RAM and storage would encourage economies in resource usage, and indeed that seemed to be happening for a while. Some truly amazing functionality could be had in a few megabytes. But, just as we’ve reached the point when hardware actually can cope with a sophisticated graphical OS on a hand-held device (Samsung Galaxy S III, HTC One series -- almost any 2012 smartphone), the same thing is happening again. Last year’s massive 16GB of storage becomes this year’s just about OK amount and will not be enough next year. Last year’s single-core CPU isn’t enough. You need two or four to keep up.

What Benefit?

Don’t you think we should get more benefit from our enormously more powerful hardware?

It can be done. Reaper is very powerful Digital Audio Workstation software. The exe file of the current version is around 7MB. Adobe’s Audition is also powerful and weighs in at more than 170MB. Audition is a good piece of software, but it can’t do very much more than Reaper. It’s certainly not 25 times better.

Serif does some amazingly powerful software, with a really good bangs for bucks ratio. I found an old 2003 full version of Photoplus -- a Photoshop competitor -- which takes up less than 6MB of a hard drive space.

It’s not just code, of course. It’s also feature creep and general kitchen-sink bloat. I don’t want my DVD burning software to compose music for me. I just want it to burn DVDs properly. I have a similar experience when I travel to London. The London terminus at the end of my line currently looks like a building site. Placards proclaim, “You told us you wanted better shopping, so we’re improving your shopping experience”. No I didn’t. And I don’t know anyone who did. I don’t want to go shopping at a train station. I want to get on a train and get the hell out of there.

Each time more resources become available, I’d guess that 75 percent or more of the extra power is rapidly soaked up by extra laziness and/or “cool” ideas; so the Net Experience Improvement Index (NEII - I’ve just invented that), instead of being 2 or more, is actually more like 0.2. So let’s all do our bit, and let’s shout (all together, now): “Give me back my hardware, please”.

Disclaimer: I have no special relationship with any software house, and the ones I have mentioned I know only as a user. The respective companies have no idea who I am and certainly haven’t sent any goodies my way.

Photo Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

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