Should we make heavy software

When I showed off Firefox 3’s smart address bar to a friend of mine a few days ago, his first reaction was: “Wow, that’s cool” and half a smile. A second later the smile was gone and he let out a disappointed “Oh but that’s going to take up so many resources”. Let’s leave for the moment that my friend was not the tech-savviest person in the world and that he would probably not be able to list exactly what those “resources” were supposed to be. What his remark got me thinking was simply: “Is it really a bad thing if my software takes up many resources?”

I suppose the core issue here is that computer users don’t really care about resources. Most of my friends wouldn’t be able to tell me the specs of their computers and much less what those specs meant. What they are interested in is quite simply, speed. They want their software to be zippy and fast, so do I, so does everyone (I hope). When my friend said that Firefox 3 would take up more resources, what he really meant was “My computer will run slower.” He quite innocently equated less features to mean lightweight and hence faster. It’s an honest mistake, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is not really correct. Tweaks and customizations to programs can often increase actual program size and complexity but give better performance. Apple has been doing with OS X for years now. Many users and benchmarks will vouch for the fact that though OS X has been gaining features, it’s also utilizing computer resources more efficiently.

Of course, it’s undeniable that the general trend is towards programs that use more resources. After all, more resources does mean more maneuvering room, more stuff to build with. And resources to keep increasing. Our computers today are vastly more powerful than those available at even the start of the decade. And we’ve been reaping the benefits with more sophisticated software: better visuals, increasingly powerful desktop search and increasing higher resolution data formats.

At the same time, many people both programmers and not, are becoming increasingly worried that modern software is bloated an unwieldy. Just as Moore’s Law has been giving us faster processor, our software acts as a Moore’s Law Compensator. Our computers still take a long time to boot up and become usable, most programs don’t start in the blink of an eye, in essence, somehow the user doesn’t really see all the power that’s tucked under the hood. This has led to a growing trend in lightweight software, especially in the more tech-savvy community.

Among Linux users this dual nature of modern software is very evident. On the one hand Linux systems can now sport powerful 3D window managers and task switchers good enough to rival Vista or Leopard. On the other hand, there have been a wave of new minimalistic window managers lacking ant graphic splendor whatsoever.

I feel myself personally affected by this double trend: I myself use a tiling window manager called Awesome. I shun IDEs, preferring to use the very lightweight Vim from a simple terminal. Firefox is just about the only graphical program that I run. At the same time, I love OS X Leopard. I think the UI is quite beautiful and I’ve become an avid user of both Expose and Spaces. Not to mention the fact that somehow fonts seem to look much better on OS X than on any other operating system I’ve ever used. Performance-wise OS X is much better than Vista which takes much longer to start up and respond on a far superior system.

Being a programmer myself, this issue is particularly important because I think about performance almost all the time. Whether it’s deciding whether to use a high-level language like Python, or lug it out with something closer to the metal like C, or which graphics toolkit to use, I have to factor in resource-use. I’m still not sure about which way is better. Software bloat is bad. Very bad. At the same it doesn’t make much sense to let all that computing power sit there unused and the benefits very often outweigh the price to be paid. For the time being, I’m calling it a truce and letting the decider be something less tangible than performance benchmarks: user experience. If you can use heavy resources but deliver a solid user experience, then go for it. An incomplete user experience for the sake of a lighter program might be occasionally justified, but not all the time. However a bad user experience along with heavier system requirements is definitely a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs. After the best software is not the one that uses least RAM or has the prettiest interface, it’s the one that gets the job done without getting in the users way.

One thought on “Should we make heavy software

  1. It’s all about tradeoffs. If Firefox was to have a lighter resource footprint, it would leave more memory and/or CPU to be potentially used by the rest of the system. The expense is that now Firefox itself will run slower (assuming it could have utilized those resources efficiently). Same would apply to any other application and OS itself.

    And considering that a typical computer almost idles during average internet browsing, it doesn’t make much sense to leave even more resources unused.

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