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Bloatware Blues

WITH ITS MOUNTAINS of petty and idiotic regulations, the European Union (EU) is hardly my favorite organization. However, it sometimes get things right, and recently started new legal action against Microsoft for anti-competitive practices. The focus of attention, as before, is with Internet Explorer being tied into the operating system.

This approach is the exact opposite of the original vision described by Bill Gates. Gates described his view of the desktop of the future as being component- oriented.

With this approach, instead of buying one or more large applications, you buy much smaller ones, and then add other “component” programs that provide the extra features that you need.

You might have award processor as a basic program that only formats text and prints it out — very robust, with excellent ease of use, good font-handling, etc. If you should also want a spell-checker, thesaurus, or some other add-on, you can buy this separately, and it will integrate fully with your basic word-processor. These extra add-ons need not come from the same software vendor.

You might well have award processor from Microsoft, a presentation application from Corel, and a spell checker from Adobe, that would work with the other two and any other programs that needed spell checks, such as your free-standing (not OS integrated) web browser. The operating system would provide the object-oriented basis for this structure, itself consisting of components.

There would be many benefits — you would no longer clutter your hard disk with functionality you don’t need, generally making much more efficient use of system— i.e. your — resources; you could tailor your system to precisely your own needs, with large organizations creating their own modules for specialist requirements. It would be highly scalable from small portable systems to power-packed workstations; this would stimulate healthy competition and the smaller programs could be expected to be relatively free of errors. We have instead been sold inefficient bloat ware.

Personally, I blame the hardware vendors. They kowtow to the Microsoft line far more than seems rational. Why? Because hardware keeps growing in size, far more quickly than genuine software needs. By providing excessively bloated software, Microsoft helps drive hardware sales, and other application developers have to follow suit because of the checkbox approach to functionality (feature tables in magazines don’t exactly help in this).

One trick that Microsoft and others have used to force us to keep upgrading has been constant changes in file format. So, you are using last year’s version of Word and you receive an email attachment from somebody using this year’s version. You can’t open it, and the pressure is therefore on to upgrade, even though the new version offers no new functionality that you need. I am only a very infrequent user of Word, and I can honestly say that only two features useful to me have been added to the software since Word for Windows v.1.0a. We have all fallen for this hook, line and sinker.

I used the word force in the last paragraph because Microsoft has often been accused of bullying tactics, and both the news item about the EU and our current review of netbooks highlighted this.

Scared of Linux — a much more flexible and scalable operating system— taking over the netbook market, a few months ago Microsoft made Windows XP Home available together with Windows CE for low-end devices. So why only low-end? Someone once annoyed a Microsoft person when he was testing Windows CE a few years ago by saying that this was the lean operating system I wanted on my desktop. But that could not be allowed, could it? It is not that Windows CE could not easily be made to run on more powerful machines than a netbook, or that Windows XP could not run on the more powerful PCs currently shipping with Vista. Microsoft insists through its license agreements with hardware vendors on strict limits to memory size, hard disk size, and so forth. Have more than a certain amount of memory and you can’t ship, for example, Windows XP, but have to force your customers to take Vista. To hell with customer choice. But the effect is not always in Microsoft’s favor.

As Linux improves and remains flexible and scalable, increasing numbers of vendors are considering moving to it. Give an average customer a Linux machine with a Windows look-and-feel, and most would hardly be able to tell the difference. Microsoft’s bullying is beginning to look like the best marketing tool Linux could have. And Microsoft’s response? Instead of more bullying, why not go back to Gates’ original component- oriented vision? Dream on...