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  • The Feature Bloat Report: Do You Really Need All That?

    May 27th, 2010

    The biggest arguments made by Apple’s competitors center on the features you don’t have, assuming you actually need them to enhance your telephone, Web or general personal computing experience. This is the sort of bullet-point innovation that Apple has traditionally avoided.

    That doesn’t mean that Apple doesn’t want to add the features that you are clamoring for, but they generally implement many of them in their own way, quite often in a fashion totally different from the competition. Indeed, even moving from the Classic Mac OS to Mac OS X, Apple actually threw out a number of system capabilities, including a highly configurable Apple menu, for a highly simplified version.

    At the beginning, it was largely a matter of time to market. Apple had to delay the release of Mac OS X by several years because they had to devise a path to allow many software companies to easily port their stuff. Key among those developers was Adobe and Microsoft. In those days, coming off a near-death experience, with lots of skeptics suggesting they’d never survive, Apple couldn’t get away with a “my way or the highway” approach.

    So Mac OS X arrived slow, somewhat buggy, and bereft of lots of features. Some of them were added over the years, although even Snow Leopard is far from a bloated OS. In fact, one of the selling points of 10.6 was that Apple actually removed old code and compressed system files so they’d consume less storage space. Many of the built-in apps also use less RAM, even though memory chips are much cheaper nowadays, but it meant that even the cheapest Mac usually has enough to spare for basic tasks.

    When 10.7 arrives — and there appears to be only a slight chance you’ll learn anything about it during the WWDC next month — Apple will no doubt be forced to tout loads of sexy new features in order to entice you to upgrade. But even if there was a brief demonstration of a few new technologies, I wouldn’t expect to see it until late in 2011. Since the best Microsoft can say about Windows 7 is that you can pin document windows to the sides of the screen, I don’t see much incentive for Apple to rush another reference release of the Mac OS.

    When it comes to the iPhone, already the uninformed critics are concerned that a product released last summer has been eclipsed in performance by recent Android OS smartphones. That may be true, although Apple is not in the business of releasing monthly updates. That would present a huge R&D outlay, whereas it’s far more efficient to release new products with significant new features when it makes sense, rather than to boast being able to open an app or a Web site a second faster. In the real world, such differences may seem significant to power users or as a sales tactic, but smooth often trumps fast, particularly when you’re trying to call up loads of different functions.

    One area where Apple excels is in feature editing. VP Philip Schiller said years ago that good product development also means knowing which features to leave out. That would surely explain why it took a couple of years to find a workable solution for cut, copy and paste, and why Apple is only now working on implementing a system-wide multitasking system that would expand beyond their own apps.

    Yes, people were clamoring loudly for both. But I can’t subscribe to the silly conspiracy theory that Apple was deliberately withholding those features in order to sell product upgrades. That doesn’t make sense. They could, after all, lose sales as well because iPhones lacked features that the media told you were essential for a great smartphone.

    Even the lack of Flash has been a controversial issue. Is Apple just trying to kill Adobe? Hardly, since Mac users not only comprise nearly half of Adobe’s sales, but such industry-standard apps as Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop are mainstays in the content creator’s toolbox.

    When it comes to the mobile platform, some might suggest that Apple is too much of a control freak to prevent developers from porting apps from Flash. But the end result is notoriously inefficient code, which fails to support the latest and greatest features of the iPhone. Who suffers from a subpar app? The developer and the customer, so even if it takes more work to build those apps, sales are apt to be higher because the end result is superior.

    It would actually be in Apple’s interest to allow Flash on the mobile platform, if it could be made to work properly. I’m sure Steve Jobs doesn’t want to prevent you from visiting the sites you want. Where’s the sense in that? But if your experience is compromised as a result, Apple suffers, because you will be less satisfied with your iPhone or iPad. Indeed, those widely publicised demos showing a Flash 1.1 beta running on the forthcoming Android 2.2 OS indicate that Adobe has lots of work to do. It’s slow, buggy and there’s no evidence that battery life isn’t seriously compromised.

    In other words, Steve Jobs was right.

    So before you demand that Apple deliver the feature you feel you want, my advice is that you be careful what you wish for.

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    7 Responses to “The Feature Bloat Report: Do You Really Need All That?”

    1. Louis Wheeler says:

      You know, Gene, it has been my case that Apple still has a hurdle ahead of it: the move to the 64 bit kernel.

      This will be a blessing for the most part, but blessing often come with pains in this world. The 64 bit kernel should get us a modest speed bump from a better utilization of the extra registers in the Core 2 processor chip. Then over the next year, we will get even more speed as Apps are upgraded to Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL. But, few people seem to be talking about this. They are likely to be surprised when the transition is implemented by default.

      Any improvements we can imagine in 10.7 will build on 64 bit, GCD and OpenCL. I expect the Carbon API’s to be quickly sidelined, since they are the major bloat in Mac OSX. I expect Carbon to be declared legacy in less than the typical 5 years.

      The migration from NeXTstep to Mac OSX will then be complete, but I don’t expect that to be finalized before 10.8. There were a number of technologies in NeXTstep which Apple may choose to revisit after Carbon is gone.

      The Finder is supposed to be in Cocoa API’s, but it isn’t quite there yet. The current Finder is transitional and will be legacy. Apple has had too much on its plate with its iPhone platform to rush the Mac transition. This especially so, because the developers need to come up to speed. They have to climb on board XCode 3.1; Adobe won’t be completely on board until late 2011.

      I suspect that there will be surprises in 10.7, because it will break with the past in many ways. Snow Leopard opens up the NeXT door and 10.7 will step through it. Features may have been waiting for five years to be implemented. We may have to look back at NeXTstep and Openstep to get some clues as to where Apple will be leading us.

      The Mac will get its day. The computing market place is fragmenting, but there will always be a place for the leading edge. Virtual Reality is still in its infancy; no one is doing it very will. It seems like a good place for Apple to take over like it did with music player and mobile phones.

    2. Louis Wheeler says:

      Regarding the iPhone, I’m not concerned about any of the current issues. It is all hype.

      Apple and Google are attempting to satisfy different segments of the mobile phone market. I get the feeling that Apple doesn’t care if Android is a success, because it won’t deny Apple any customers. There are, world wide, a billion Feature Phone users for them to co-opt. Android is aimed at the geeks and Apple is aimed at the general market. There are many times as many general mobile phone customers as geeks. The statistics say that Google’s Android is stealing mostly from Microsoft, RIM and Palm.

      It was only the geeky iPhone customers who cared about copy and paste or multi-tasking. There is no evidence that Apple lost many sales over these highly technical issues. Apple has had difficulty supplying demand, especially with the iPad.

      Nor is Apple experiencing a lack of developers or applications for the iPhone platform. Hence, it can increase demands for quality from its developers. Of course, they may resent that demand, but squawking about it is unlikely to deter Apple. The developers can accuse Apple of being a control freak, but they have only one choice: is it lucrative enough to develop for Apple hardware? If it is, then they will shut up about it.

      Flash is incompatible with the multi-touch technologies used on the iPhone platform because it requires mouse rollovers. Apple can’t simply wave a magic wand and allow Flash on the iPhone.

      This issue was decided three years ago and can’t be changed now without web site owners spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rework their sites. They are much better off spending that money upgrading to HTML5 and H.264.

    3. dfs says:

      Is there such a thing as feature bloat? Over the years I have relied on two programs in particular to get my job done, Word and Dreamweaver, and in both cases I doubt I have ever used more than maybe five or at most ten percent of the dizzying number of the features and options they offer. So are these cases of “feature bloat“? In one sense, of course, they are. These are huge programs and if you wrote out the code for either of them it would be a huge multi-volume thing like the Greater London Phone Directory. And there’s no way in the world that you can have so much code and keep it bug-free. In the case of both Word and Dreamweaver, realy, the miracle is that they work as well as they do. But let’s look at it another way. In American politics it’s very easy to dismiss the benefits given somebody else as “pork.” You can easily convince a city dweller that farm subsidies are unnecessary, and a farmer that subsidizing urban mass transit is a waste of good money, but each party regards his own benefits as an utterly necessary sacred cow. In the same way, the features on these programs that I could easily dismiss as as “bloat”might easily be the very features that allow somebody else to put food on his table every night. So all of us say we want lean mean programs (and lean mean devices), and yet at the same time we loudly scream for the particular missing features we happen to want or need. Thee developers who put out huge complex programs like Word and Dreamweaver don’t do so because they’re too stupid to appreciate the advantages of simplicity or are enamored with running up the number of features just for the sake of doing it. If they are to be blamed for anything at all, it’s for listening too carefully to the requests coming from their customer base. And let’s face it, sometime or other we have all blamed Apple for not offering us this feature or that one and criticized it for not listening enough to customer requests. So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

    4. Louis Wheeler says:

      “In American politics it’s very easy to dismiss the benefits given somebody else as “pork.””

      You know, dfs, It’s fraught with danger to discuss politics in technical web pages. It’s not that technical people shouldn’t have a political viewpoint. But, when they spout their opinions, they are usually misapplied, irrelevant or propagandistic. Too often, their illustrations are carelessly tossed about talking points or diatribes against their enemies, rather than object lessons which we can all agree upon.

      Then, we have different personalities involved. Gene, for instance, is a 1960s hippy “flower child.” This means that he and I are probably at odds in our religion, economics, sociology and politics. Thus, we believe in different solutions to life’s ills.

      I have zero faith in governmental power and would rather have most decisions made locally by the people involved, not by bureaucrats many miles away at state or federal capitals. I want to leave people alone to solve their own problems, rather than having the government intrude into their lives.

      I believe in citizen sovereignty, not in any group rights as expressed through state power. Rights are granted by God, not by governments. This is what makes me mostly a libertarian and a small government advocate.

      Where I differ from Libertarians is that I believe that God provides us with travail to learn from. When the government interferes, it keeps us from learning what God’s lesson was. Some such lessons are that we cannot, long, spend more than we earn and we shouldn’t make promises which we are unlikely to keep. Another is that problems aren’t solved by placing burdens on other people’s shoulders; what if they shrug them off?

      But for all those differences, Gene and I probably want the same things: a peaceful, prosperous, technically energetic and productive society where issues are resolved and people get their needs met. Where the ills, which occur, are succored by the voluntary acts of kind people. But, the Devil is in the details. We must use methods which actually put the issues to rest. Neither Gene nor I believes the other has a viable action plan.

      Both of us have strong defenses for our opinions, but that doesn’t mean that we should go out of our way to antagonize the other. I believe that Gene is a decent, honorable, honest person. Hence, I don’t believe that he is in favor of governmental corruption or that he believes that, “might makes right.”

      We need to carefully define what corruption is. Political corruption is when our public servants become SELF serving; those politicians and bureaucrats stop serving their masters: the citizens. They steal public funds and use them to buy the votes of the ignorant.

      Mostly, what these politicians and bureaucrats do is lie; they make promises which they know they cannot keep. They create impossible partizan dreams rather than giving the people what they want. They distort the law to give themselves powers not granted by the founders or the Constitution. They arrogate powers which should be left to the people. This is true of both political parties.

      These “power seekers” redistribute wealth by transferring funds from one group to another. This is what “Pork” is. The politicians know that, in a Republic, this is illegitimate behavior; otherwise, they wouldn’t want to keep it quiet. If they were honest, they would trumpet everywhere, not just in their local district, of the bacon which they are bringing home.

      Thomas Jefferson warned that our government would turn into a tyranny when political groups attempt to live at another’s expense. This means that I have lived my life in an American tyranny. Gene may agree, but we might have different heros and villains.

    5. Louis Wheeler says:

      Is there a technical lesson to be learned from this, dfs? Yes, it is that politics can intrude itself into business and that businesses can use propaganda to sell their products. If you elevate checklists and features in importance, rather than capabilities, then bloat will occur from sloppy coding. The software companies will scrabble after another meaningless feature, rather than making it easier and safer for a person to get their task done.

      This comes from misapplied motives, too; the software companies are not serving their existing customers. They trying to sell to NEW customers by lying about the benefits which they would receive. The NEW customers are intentionally mislead about what is important.

      Powerful groups inside big and bureaucratic businesses, such as IT departments, can become self serving and propagandistic. These power groups have distorted the computing industry. This is why technical propaganda or FUD abounds.

      This distortion is beginning to run its course because the law of diminishing returns has set in. Increasing the speed of a processor no longer gives much benefit. All that does is turn over the crap faster. Increasing the numbers of cores helps nothing unless you have software which can utilize them.

      Apple, once you have taken out the new capacities such as the 64 bit kernel, GCD and OpenCL, has reduced Snow Leopard’s size by 50%. Windows Seven was much larger than Leopard 10.5. Snow Leopard still has bloat to remove — the Carbon API’s.

      We have yet to perceive the benefits from doing any of this, but we will rather soon. We won’t be able to overlook the obvious forever. The real world has consequences, both in politics and business.

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