Friday, November 16, 2007

Andy Giveth and Bill Taketh Away

Here is a great article on the arms race between Intel hardware and Windows software and where it has gotten us. The author writes:
Microsoft Office 2007 which, when deployed on Windows Vista, consumes over 12x as much memory and nearly 3x as much processing power as the version that graced PCs just 7 short years ago (Office 2000).
People will try to rebut this result by pointing out that newer software has lots more features. That's true. For some categories, the great increase in processing power over the decades has made possible whole new types of creative activities that weren't possible before because they couldn't be achieved in a reasonable amount of time, memory, and disk space.

My favorite recent case in point is Apple's Aperture, which I've been using to process thousands of scanned family photographs. Aperture maintains one master version of an image file, untouched, and applies all its alterations -- cropping, editing, color shifts, sharpening, etc., as a set of instructions. You can have a dozen different versions of a photograph in progress without saving a dozen different files. To accomplish this it makes very heavy use of your machine's processing power and memory. It trades CPU for disk space. It requires a lot of machine resources, but on the other hand it allows you to experiment with images and make many different trial versions in a way that you just can't do working solely with a more traditional tool like Photoshop. (Although Aperture has fallen down on me for some tasks that Photoshop is capable of accomplishing on the same machine, like rotating a 500-megabyte TIFF file; Photoshop is better tuned towards making maximum use of disk space in exchange for limiting the amount of memory it requires).

But we're talking about an office suite executing the same tasks that were required of it seven years ago. Going outside the scope of the author's arguments, I'd go back much further; my experience with tools like Microsoft Word goes back to Microsoft Word 1.0. That tool was capable of making a writer quite reasonably productive on a Mac Plus with 1 megabyte of RAM.

I like being able to do what Aperture can do with 2.5 gigabytes of RAM and a G5 or better CPU. I like being able to compile software tools with over a million lines of code in them during the span of a coffee break. But as one of the commenters pointed out,
Everyone at my office was excited to see Vista and Office '07 when we bought a new Vista machine. The analyst using the new machine (she has an average of 20 spreadsheets open at a time) was quick to voice her displeasure as it was no faster than her old eMachines PC running Office 2000 with 128mb RAM.
Indeed! And another very perceptive comment:
What do you do with Office that you couldn't do with Office 97? In my experience, most people don't even know how to set paragraph indentation (they hit |tab| instead), let alone use anything advanced.
That is still true today for many, many users, except that in 1987 the big bugaboo was using spaces to indent things, which would come out differently when printed than on the screen. Except these users are using a gigabyte of memory and hundreds of threads to do the same thing!

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