Have you noticed how all prominent operating systems seem to bloat with each release? Windows is probably the best example, but even Ubuntu had slowly gained weight and become more of a resource hog over the years. It’s sad really. Instead of becoming leaner, more optimized and streamlined our OS’s become bigger, more sluggish and encumbered with tons of unnecessary features. The primary driving force behind OS development these days is usability (a noble cause) and multiplying the feature count. Because nothing shows that the new version is better than a bullet list of new features that can be printed on a sales brochure. The OS makers are often forgoing optimization relying on Moore’s law to pick up the slack. Naturally they forget that most users do not replace their computer every 18 months. Therefore there is a discrepancy between what users have in terms of hardware, what should they have based on Moore’s law and what the developers are shooting for.
The result is that unless you have a bleeding edge hardware, your new OS is likely to run anywhere between slow and sluggish. Add an array of resident tools such as Anti Virus suite, print monitors, media programs that launch on start up, preloaders of various applications, IM suites and you have a machine that is moving in slow motion from the day one. Any new resident programs and (God forbid) inevitable malware infections will bring the machine to a grinding halt. If not today, then tomorrow when new releases of software will assume hardware moved to the next performance bracket as predicted by Moore’s law.
If you have ever worked in IT you know that the #1 user complaint you will hear on a daily basis is “my computer is slow”. Actually, you don’t even have to work in IT to know that. All you need is to work in any field where you need some technical knowledge. Or hell, if you ever reveal any kind of computer know-how to your friends and relatives you will likely be overrun with questions on how to make windows faster.
Slow performance is such a pervasive issue that even malware makers are using a promise of fixing it as a bait. If I had a penny for every time I’ve seen someone download a “registry cleaner”, “system speedup toolkit” or other “turbo booster” software which was really a trojan, I would be a rich man. People fall for this trick all the time, because they get desperate. They buy a computer which runs fine for 6 months to a year, and then starts becoming more and more sluggish. No matter what they do, they can’t return it to the original performance. Why?
Well, it’s a difficult question. The performance degradation has many possible causes:
- Resident programs running at start up
- Unnecessary services running in the background
- 3rd party software modifying the OS functions ways that degrade performance (a/v suites are big offenders here)
- Disk fragmentation
- OS updates that increase memory footprint and CPU load
- Other software updates that increase memory footprint of running services
- Gremlins maliciously flipping bits in the memory for LULZ
- Bit bucket becoming full and overflowing
- Machine spirits nesting in the hardware
That last one is something I keep warning people about. If you keep personifying your computer, it will eventually cause a machine spirit to coalesce inside of your computer case. These spirits are not really autonomous beings – they are more like an empathic echo. They acquire all the personality traits which the user commonly ascribes to the machine. So if you keep saying something like “this computer hates me” or “I hate this computer” the machine spirit will really hate you, or assume you hate it and will work against you. A machine that is loved, and pampered may behave much better – but it can become moody, and downright malicious when it starts suspecting that the user is planing to replace it. Even if your machine spirit is benign most of the time, it still needs to steal some CPU cycles and some memory to store it’s personality and cognitive processes. The older the machine spirit, the more resources it requires. The only way to get rid of a machine spirit is to stop feeding it. When you think of your machine as an inanimate electronic box, or better yet – a tool, or extension of yourself the spirit will eventually cease to exist.
All joking aside, part of the performance degradation issue lies in the simple fact that most our operating systems are bloated to begin with. So even if you take a slow machine, wipe it clean and reinstall the OS it will still be slow. By the time you install all the current patches, all upgrades and equip it with the latest a/v suite you will be almost back to where you started minus the malware. But the user will install that back as soon as he gets the machine back. This happens because new applications and the OS updates are tailored at current hardware, whereas most users will be running them on a machine that is one or two Moore’s law iterations behind (if not more). Not only that, but our perception of what is fast changes quite significantly over the years. Your machine might have seemed fast 4 years ago, but that’s because it was on the cutting edge back then. Now the cutting edge has moved.
The more complex and feature full the operating systems get, the more prone they become to general crufting. For years now I have been dreaming about a lean, stripped down mainstream OS that would be available to general public, and could be installed on slightly older hardware. I mean, yes – you can do this with a stripped down Linux distro. For example I heard good things about Arch, and Crux. But these are more of a fringe systems that are targeted at enthusiasts. Not necessarily something you install on your neighbors machine when he cries about performance issues. Besides, if you try hard enough you can make those systems bloated as well.
Microsoft has it’s Windows Fundamentals thing, which is a stripped down XP. Still, it can only be obtained via Volume Licensing which means it is clearly not targeted at the home market. Also, Fundamentals seems a bit like an afterthought – it’s not a flagship product and gets limited amount of attention.
What we really need is a modern OS designed from ground up to be lean, mean and optimized for performance. I mean something built for speed and usability – not retrofitted for it by stripping off useful features and degrading user experience. The most user friendly Linux distributions are usually tailored towards feature bloat. Can Google Chrome break that trend?
Google certainly has the clout to market this OS to the masses, and brand recognition that won’t make people run for the hills. It’s still Linux, but people won’t know about it, and therefore won’t be scared of trying it. Could chrome be the first user friendly, mainstream Linux distro tailored towards non-geeks using legacy hardware?
It’s certainly interesting. I’m anxiously awaiting the release of the OS to see if it will follow the same high quality design as most other Google products. I’m also very curious as to how it will be received by mainstream, non-technical population.