I bought a new machine a couple of weeks ago. It has 24 times as much main memory as the one it replaces and a far superior processor. And it is perceptibly slower.
We all know why. Manufacturers have been dealing from the bottom of this particular deck for ages. The extraordinary complexity of the systems software is to blame.
Naturally, it makes the machine easier to use. Had I needed the machine to be easier to use, that would have been a valuable feature. Had I needed to be able to personalise my interface, or modify it for a second (rather less privileged) user, or even adapt it so that a two-year-old could get started, much of the systems software would have been essential.
Since, however, I want to do none of those things, it is superfluous.
And here is where modern operating systems are so devilishly cunning.
They protect themselves. For them, the purpose of life is more life. They have an anthropomorphic view of what might constitute more life, which means they have no truck with pruning. For them, more life means simply growing bigger.
Operating systems used to be vulnerable. Early PC users were obliged to become technically adept. Many people with no training in programming could tell from a file name (the old six-letter-prefix three-letter-suffix type) what a file was and what it did. If they wanted to, they could prune the operating system by deleting those bits they didn't need.
By contrast, only the most reckless user would take the secateurs to a modern operating system. You can often tell that things might be important, simply by where they are. But as to what they might do, their names seldom offer any clue. What damage you might do if you delete them is therefore equally uncertain. The one thing you need to tackle systems software with any confidence is the certainty that you will do nothing irrevocable.
For anyone without advanced training in software engineering, that puts most of the modern operating systems out of bounds.
So the machine runs like a dog. It is considerably slower than the Amstrad PCW8256 I was using 10 years ago. In its defence, I should note that it is more colourful, plays a mean CD and transmits material down the phone lines 96 times faster.
Within the word processor, my typing speed is the chief constraint on performance. Everywhere else, the lack of performance by comparison with the earlier system is a frustration. What makes it doubly irritating is knowing why the systems software is the way it is.
There are two aspects to the explanation. One: the machines must be made easier to use to make it possible to sell them to greater numbers of people.
These greater numbers, it is assumed, have not yet bought a computer because they find them too daunting. Ease of use is, therefore, essential.
Two: when you start treating users like morons it becomes difficult to know where to stop. Certainly, they can be allowed no real discretion in organising the system to their convenience. The options you offer them, then, are purely cosmetic.
And a kind of reciprocity develops. As programmers get used to treating their customers as idiots, they too become less intelligent. The result is systems software that is too big, too slow and generally rather stupid.
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