Open-source bloatware

The free-software world's version of Microsoft's paper clip describes itself the best: "An inspiring example of form following function -- to Hell."

Published April 26, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Could somebody please slap Joel Holveck, hard? No single Microsoft software "innovation" (with the possible exception of Microsoft Bob) has ever been reviled as much as the leering animated paper clip "help assistant" that first debuted three years ago in Office 97. But now, thanks to the deranged creativity of free-software developer Holveck, the world has been blessed, or cursed, with a tool no one ever asked for -- Vigor, a Unix text editor complete with its very own paper clip help assistant.

Sound like a joke? Well, yes, it is, or at least it was. Vigor got its start as a weeklong run of jokes in the geek-obsessed cartoon strip "User Friendly." But what was once idle fun is now horrible reality. Vigor lives. Or, more accurately, it interrupts. Vigor's sole purpose is to annoy users with snide comments that must be acknowledged with a click on the OK button before work can continue.

If one was to really contort oneself, one might be able to cite the emergence of Vigor as an element in some kind of pseudo-analysis of the software industry. Microsoft's Office suites are textbook examples of bloatware -- software packed with more features than any human could possibly need or desire. Microsoft's paper clip is, of course, bloatware Exhibit A. But Vigor is an adaptation of the freely redistributable "nvi" text editor written by Keith Bostic, which in itself is a descendant of the legendary (and still widely used) "vi" text editor written by |ber-programmer Bill Joy one afternoon when he was momentarily distracted from his usual hobby of completely rewriting operating systems overnight. Vi is small and fast, and comes equipped with zero extraneous features. Until now.

So is Vigor a sign that Microsoft-ian bloatishness will infect even the pristine world of free software? Or is it proof that irreverent hackers hold nothing sacred, to the point of blaspheming against their own holy tools? Or is Vigor yet another demonstration of the all-conquering power of the open-source software methodology -- if hackers can write code that imitates even the worst abuses of Microsoft, what can't they do?

Or maybe a joke is just a joke.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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