Get rid of all the resource hogging software that you use, and replace them with streamlined applications that use system resources only when you need them to.
Bloatware is a dirty word bandied about below the noses of commercial software development companies, mostly by users who prefer modularity over comprehensiveness. To understand what exactly bloatware is, it is necessary to peek into the production process of software. Software is a lot of code compiled together, and run as an application. The code itself is often written by many people, over a code skeleton. This process is known as development. Software, in active development, has a release timeline, a list of improvements, bug fixes and new features. The consecutive releases of the software are called versions. As the versions increase, the amount of aggregated code in the software also increases along with the file size. Consider the popular video player — VLC 0.8.2: the first version to be released to the public, started as a 1.7 MB download. The latest installation, VLC 0.9.8 is 15.8 MB!
Why software bloats
Every modern commercial software, has a bunch of mainstay elements. Even for free software such as Adobe Reader, there are just too many features being included in subsequent releases. Winamp and VLC, are both commonly used media playback software, and have advanced features that is not of use to everyone. Feature bloat is just one kind of bloatware. Games, and professional multimedia processing software include code for handling copy protection, and ensuring that the software is licensed and authenticated. Adobe Photoshop and Premiere both struggle on even on the best rigs available in the market.
Then there is process bloat. For example, the latest version of Winamp runs both an agent as well as the player itself. These are two processes for essentially the same task. Printers, soundcards, and routers often come with CDs that install software on the computer, that are not really necessary. These software perform essentially the same task as the OS, but with little added functionality, and a better looking user interface. Another kind of bloat is almost opposite to that of feature bloat. There are multiple software installed in a system, for essentially the same, or similar tasks.
Quicktime and RealPlayer are players for their native formats, and both the media players suffer from feature bloat as well. Often users have to install multiple browsers on their operating systems, even if they need and use just one. This happens for two reasons – firstly; until Windows 7, it was not possible to uninstall Internet Explorer. Secondly, not all web sites could be viewed on all browsers. A user will typically have a download manager, a P2P client and a torrent client, when a single application can do all these jobs. More than one messenger client also does not really make sense, but many people have installed the default messenger clients of MSN, Yahoo! and Google.
Free and open source software are generally perceived as being less bloated than their commercial counterparts. One of the most important reason for this is the lack of competition. These software are written for multiple platforms, and often follow the UNIX software design philosophy, which is to write a software for one particular purpose only, and make it streamlined for that purpose. Those who compile the programs they use have the option of leaving out features they deem unnecessary. In the commercial software arena, the rules of the game are entirely different.
A DVD burner with the ability to transcode data is perceived as being better than a DVD burner that does not. This may seem like a minor addition on the surface, but adds significantly to the system’s software footprint. There are a number of video and audio formats to choose from, and a host of codecs for each of those formats. Every added feature significantly bloats up the software.
Why bloatware should bother you
Bloatware may eat up essential system resources from the task at hand. Alternatives are more streamlined for your purposes, run faster, and give you better results. If all you do with software such as Photoshop is a little cropping, adding captions and color correction, Paint.net will do the job using less than half the resources, and never running out of scratch disk space. On a desktop this may seem unimportant, but on laptops and netbooks with limited processing power and hard disk space, this becomes absolutely vital.
Another important aspect is privacy and bandwidth usage. Windows Media Player from Microsoft, and the CS3 suite by Adobe, are both known to have sent discreet packets of data over the net, with details on usage. While the license agreements state that personal information is not collected in this usage, and that it is done solely to improve the software itself, they are taking up a small portion of your bandwidth. Software from lesser companies have been called spyware for doing exactly the same.
Automated updates often take up a considerable share of the bandwidth. Weekly definition updates of most antivirus software is somewhere in the range of 20 MB. For careful users, who are smart about their external drives and web habits, this is just a waste of space and bandwidth.
Dangers of using alternatives Bloatware is also a relative term. Expert users and professionals often use obscure features that the lay user may not need. A certain alternative to the bloatware in question may not work as well as the bloatware for some applications. For example, Foxit Reader, a widely touted replacement for the bloated Adobe Acrobat Reader, cannot handle embedded forms as well as Acrobat Reader can.
While bloatware alternatives may not collect usage data, have no licensing process involved, and carry a minimum file size, they are more difficult to use than the commercial or bloated alternatives. Paint.net and Gimp, both alternatives to Photoshop, depend heavily on plug-ins for added functionality. You can do everything you can on Photoshop, but only if you hunt down the plug-ins for the purpose and install it. This increases the footprint of the software, but you get to customize it the way you want, with the features you want. Most new users of either of these software are either unaware of the existence of these plug-ins, or unwilling to take the trouble to find and install the ones they need. There is no correct approach to this problem, and it depends heavily on the individual users.
The direction that the development of the software takes, may not be the same as the direction the alternatives take. For example, although Photoshop CS4 allows users to work with 3D models, it’s unlikely that Paint.net or Gimp will ever add such functionality to their releases. The formats used by bloatware, are also not always supported by the alternatives.
Some software have “lite” versions, with reduced features. Some installation procedures allow for undesirable processes to be removed, including an option to send in usage data. Often, as in the case of VLC or Winamp, the previous versions of the software are less bloated and preferable to the newer versions. All these aspects have to be considered before choosing the software you want; this is a guide to choose the best one for your usage.
Most users prefer to use a different software for viewing music and video. The default for both in modern windows systems is Windows Media Player. Windows Media Player takes unusually long to open files, is slow to respond, buggy when handling large files and can handle a very limited number of codecs to start with. VLC, one installed, would be godsend to many, simply because users were able to play videos encoded using obscure codecs. K-lite mega codec pack, along with Windows Media Player classic should do the trick now. Media Player Classic handles QuickTime and real player formats. The latter better than the latest version of VLC. It is fast, simple, and minimalist, a design philosophy that VLC seems to have drifted away from. The older version of VLC, 0.7.0, can still handle most videos, and is a 5 MB install.
Audio players are more complicated. Winamp has become the de facto due to the wide range of skins available, and for being around for such a long time. However, the latest version of the player forces a lot of features on you. The media library, for example, is a constant irritant. There is no way to get rid of it, unless you choose the classic skin. The newer skins are also heavy on resources. Feature bloat was a problem ever since version 5.0 came out, which was a long time after 3.0, and skipping everything 4.x, because that is how much Winamp had changed. Not everyone welcomed the change, and a lot of tech enthusiasts prefer the older version of Winamp. Typically, they use whatever 2.x series is available to them. 2.95 is the last version in the 2.x series, but an interesting release was the 2.666 version, which enthusiasts prefer merely for the connotations in the version number. 3.0 was another release, the only one in the short lived 3.x series. A lot of users swear by the 3.0 version also, a suitable compromise between the simplicity of the earlier versions, and the feature set in the later versions. However, finding skins for 3.0 is a difficult thing now, and it does not support 2x skins.
An alternative to Winamp, and another media player which has its own fan following among techies is Foobar2000. This software is small, functional, and the tweaker’s dream as it can be customized in a hundred different ways. Foobar2000 is one of the few software that has struck the right balance between default features and plug-ins. There are many plug-ins available, but these are not overwhelming in number and are for highly specific features.
The default download managers for most browsers, are not aggressive in the sense of consuming bandwidth. Even without any other internet activity, these browsers typically download using just a single connection with the server. Multi-threaded download managers connect multiple times to the same server, and download data faster. This was the reason download managers such as FileZilla, Free Download Manager and Orbit Downloader showed up in the first place. However, modern download managers require some added features beyond mere multi-threaded downloading. These features ensure that there is no need to install additional programs for downloading data. A download manager should ideally be able to download flash videos from a number of web sites. If the download manager can handle torrents, even better, the need for a torrent client is removed. Free Download Manager has these features packed in, but retains a small size despite this. The application is very utilitarian, and users will discover that they eventually end up using most of the features Free Download Manager has to offer. We would be interested if a download manager could additionally connect to P2P servers, as well as capture streaming audio. This is one of those cases where additional features actually reduces by feature bloat, by limiting the number of software needed for the task at hand.
Microsoft Outlook is slow to start up, heavy on the system resources, and has nervous ticks if it is alive for long durations of time. A great alternative is Eudora, which manages most of the functions of Outlook quite well. Mozilla Thunderbird is another great application, but suffers from having a few superfluous features. These however, include a calendar and a manager, which is something that quite a few find useful. Eudora is the choice for strictly mail related matters, Thunderbird is the way to go for a personal information manager (PIM) along with an email client.
Instead of Gtalk, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger, a great alternative IM client is Pidgin. Pidgin is easy to use, has a simple interface, and is portable, which gives it an advantage over the other free multi-network chat client, Miranda.
Although MS Office is pretty bloated, the alternatives such as Open Office or Lotus Symphony are simply not as smooth, and easy to handle as MS Office. Moreover, Open Office suffers from feature bloat simply because it has to handle a whole range of competing formats, and does not handle all of these formats well enough. A simple to use, and low footprint word processor is Abiword. This is a no-nonsense word processor, built for a single purpose, and is not part of an office suite. Google Docs, with their spreadsheet and word program, are great alternatives to an installed office suite. The collaboration aspect greatly improves the appeal of Google Docs.
Adobe Acrobat Reader is notorious for being bloatware in the past few releases. While all it was expected to do was open a particular kind of document, the file format itself started accommodating different kinds of data, which the reader grew to handle. Adobe Acrobat Reader is probably the best example there is, of a software that has been in active development for too long. Even the commentary on the documents carried back and forth can have embedded videos. Commentary itself is an obscure enough feature for most users, video commentary is going too far. Users can also web-conference while reading a document. A simpler and understandably, much smaller PDF reader is Foxit reader.
Typically, users tend to have an image editor, an image batch processor, and a software for remote hosting. This is apart from the software that came with their cameras. This is accumulated bloat, and it is best to un-install all of them, then start over with the programs and features that you most require.
Picasa 3 should ideally solve all three needs. It has a basic range of image editing options available, handles batch resizing before uploading to the web, and is an image viewer with decent enough eye-candy. If adding a watermark, or bat-processing images in many ways is necessary, then IrfanView is a very small software, that nonetheless has a surprising number of features built in. IrfanView also allows for plug-ins for added functionality. For advanced image editing, both Gimp and Paint.Net are great alternatives to Photoshop. Gimp is a little difficult to figure out, and needs a lot of plug-ins before the functionality reaches anywhere close to Photoshop, but has a few tricks up its sleeve that even Photoshop does not. Paint.Net is very easy to figure out, has a familiar user interface, and the plug-ins are easy to install. Our suggestion for the amateur: Paint.Net.
Both Audacity and Wavepad are great when it comes to sound editing, but the functionality that Wavepad offers in comparison to the size of the download is unmatched. A 50 kb download, and you get to record, mix, and add a host of effects to your track.
A bloat-free future
The original vision for all software was a highly modular approach. The basic software would do very little, it was up to the user to find or code in the required plugins and add-ons. Computers however, were used in far more ways than was thought possible when they were first introduced to the general public. In a mad scramble to appease the dumb consumption of software by a large mass of people who couldn’t bother to train themselves to use computers intelligently, issues similar to software bloat appeared. Remember that users are actually paying for the bloated software. The cost of coding authentication algorithms, developing all the features you one does not use, and of the increasingly tough copy-protection, is all transferred to the person who purchases the software. Reducing bloat is something that both the developer’s and the users want, but finding a commercially viable alternative is the problem.
A simple way to handle bloat in the future is to use remotely hosted applications, similar to Google apps. Such a setup would reduce bloat in a lot of ways. Consider a set-up like this: the end user has nothing but a screen and a high-bandwidth connection to a remote server. The server has all the hardware necessary to run the software, and a single instance of the software itself. Even if most users use only a few of the features, since the software is centrally located, there is little or no wastage. Of course, the interface for the software will be highly customized, so that the individual users don’t waste the space on their screen with features they don’t use. Next, as part of the development cycle, the software is updated in one place only, standardizing the formats across all the users.
Till such systems come into place, regular users have little choice in choosing the features as well as the software they want to use. The problem with the assumption that users have a steadily increasing amount of hard disk space and memory to use, is that the users are forced to keep upgrading their system. Perfectly sound hardware for most purposes gets obsolete quickly for this reason. A computer purchased in the mid eighties lasted five years without any hardware upgrades. The same cannot be said for a computer purchased in the mid nineties. The kind of modularity envisioned for all operating systems, is true to an extent for the Linux OS, which is a great option for reviving and putting to good use an “obsolete” system.