Blame the consumer!

Slate argues that developers shouldn't be faulted for bloated software.

Published July 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"The problem with software today is not that it is bloated," writes Andrew Shuman, in an article in Tuesday's edition of Slate magazine, entitled "In Praise of Bloated Software." "The problem is that it's not bloated enough!"

At first glance, readers could be excused for wondering if perhaps Slate was running a piece of satire -- some kind of latter-day "Modest Proposal." Starving Irish? No problem, tell 'em to eat their babies. Bloated software that won't run on your 2-year-old Pentium 233? Big deal -- just go buy a new computer. And quit yer bitching.

But Shuman's not joking, even if he does share Slate editor in chief Michael Kinsley's patented overweening archness. Bloat is good, writes the former Microsoft developer, now the "program manager" for Microsoft-owned Slate. "Do you really think software developers add features just for fun, like some cackling tormentor? If only that were the case. Sadly, it is you, the customer, who demands bloat, forever clamoring for new features."

Now there's a canny public relations move! Blame it on the consumer! Sure, computers are always getting faster, and hard drives are always getting bigger -- but that just means developers can get away with writing bloatware, not that they should be getting away with it.

Shuman's article is a classic display of a perennial Microsoft blind spot -- its utter failure to recognize that consumers aren't getting what they want, and are becoming increasingly irritated. People do not really enjoy buying new computers just so they can read a Word file that their boss sent them from his brand new Windows 98/Office2000 box without bothering to save it in a readable format. They find it hard to comprehend why new programs won't work well on computers that seemed state-of-the-art six months ago.

Certainly, computer technology changes faster than, say, car tech or radio tech. But at some point isn't it excusable for a consumer to not want to have to buy into new technology just so he or she can read a document? Isn't it OK for us to wonder whether we are being scammed, to question whether the whole techno-economy is based on an extraordinarily virulent form of planned obsolescence that renders expensive pieces of electronic equipment useless long before they should be?

It doesn't have to be that way. It's quite possible to write highly complex and capable software that runs on "old" equipment. Microsoft, of course, has no incentive to do that, because Microsoft's profits depend on the sales of new computers running Microsoft's latest operating system or Office suite. But what about those other software developers, the ones that see a market for writing software that works on older computers -- that's lean and mean, compact and clean? Shouldn't they be the people we praise?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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