Monday, February 26, 2024

The many victims of bloat

This is not a lament for a program I never used. Instead, consider this. The first version of Lotus 1-2-3 appeared in 1982. Its size was 359.56 kilobytes, or kb. The last version was released in 1999. Its size was 230.82 megabytes, or mb. That is, in 17 years, Lotus 1-2-3 grew over 640 times larger.

Was it over 640 times more useful, or efficient? Hard to say—I never used it, remember? But I suspect the answer is “no”. It may have had more features, but I really doubt its basic spreadsheeting functions qualitatively improved by a factor of 640.

Still, that’s not the point I want to make. Here was a piece of software that inflated like a balloon in those years. What happened to hardware in that time?

One broad-brush metric to measure that is the well-known Moore’s Law. It says that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years.

Moore’s Law has held for well over half a century now, though chip designers keep thinking they may be running up against molecular limits. In any case, the implication of the Law is that the speed and storage capacity of computers will double—or get close to it—every two years.

Apply that to the 17-year life of Lotus 1-2-3. Doubling every two years through that time means about a 500-fold expansion. That is, in that much time, storage capacity of computers multiplied 500 times, and similarly for their speed. That’s a huge increase.

Yet, one of the world’s then-best-known pieces of software, Lotus 1-2-3, outstripped that with its own expansion: a factor of 640 versus a factor of 500.

Which, to folks who write software or build computers, isn’t really a surprise. They know that in general, software grows faster than hardware does. There are reasons for this “software bloat”. More and maybe unnecessary features is one. But also, with cheaper and faster memory, programmers have little incentive to care about something that all of us computer science students paid attention to a generation ago. That’s “garbage collection”, meaning careful and optimum use of computer memory. “The increasing capacities of the computer’s RAM and storage,” a 2016 article in PCMag remarks, “allow programmers to be much less concerned with conservation.”

No wonder software packages such as Lotus 1-2-3 or more recent ones, and the computers they run on, rarely seem to actually “feel” faster, even though hardware capacity and speed increases exponentially. Software simply bloats to fill that expanded capacity. There’s even Wirth’s Law, an informal but telling principle computer scientists cite to explain this: software becomes slower more rapidly than hardware becomes faster.

If that gives you some food for thought, it may occur to you that this phenomenon isn’t restricted just to software and computers. I remember thinking, when I got a raise at work once, “OK, finally I’ll feel less like I’m living on the edge!” Yet, my expenses found ways to rise, too, quickly accounting for my increment.

And then there are roads and cars.

Not long ago, we heard from Nitin Gadkari, minister for road transport and highways, that India’s road network increased in size from 91,287 km in 2013-14 to 145,240 km in 2022-23. That’s a 59% increase in nine years ( There are questions to ask about this, but let’s for now take it at face value. Also, these numbers refer to highways, but there have been dramatic increases in road networks in our towns and cities, too. For example, Wikipedia tells us that urban roads went from 252,001 km in 2000-01 to 544,683 km in 2020-21; and rural roads went from 1,972,016 km to 4,535,511 km in the same time. Both are better than twofold increases, in 20 years.

Impressive? Undoubtedly. Yet, think of this: We have built flyovers and high-speed corridors and a sea link and highways and so on—all promising faster commutes for most of us. But it still takes me a minimum of an hour to drive from my Mumbai suburb to Nariman Point. That is how long it took to drive that distance in the early 1990s, before the sea link, before the flyovers. Despite promise, despite new infrastructure, why has commuting time stayed the same in these 30 years?

The answer lies in certain other numbers that have also risen. How many vehicles use those roads, and how fast are they multiplying? That is actually hard to pin down precisely, because sometimes you’ll see data about “passenger vehicles”, other times “four-wheelers” and the like. Still, there’s data saying the number of “registered vehicles” (defined as all registered vehicles minus registered two-wheelers) in India was 82.6 million in 2019, an 11% increase from 2018. That followed 6.7% and 5.5% increases the previous two years ( Take the middle of those three increases and apply it, post 2019: a steady 6.7% annual increase gives us 107 million registered vehicles on our roads today. Those, and the subtracted two-wheelers, use our road network in 2023.

But let’s compare this rise to the road network increase above. Over nine years, a steady annual 6.7% increase will amount to a 79.26% jump—easily outstripping the highway increase of 59% cited earlier. And over 20 years, we get a 3.66-fold jump—again easily outstripping both the urban and rural road expansions.

That is, even a relatively conservative estimate of the way vehicle counts are rising on our roads shows that it beats the pace at which we expand our road network. No wonder driving into town takes about as long as it did 30 years ago. Because as fast as we build new roads, they fill with vehicles even faster.

The same lesson as with software. The lesson cities around the globe have learned. Bloat happens. So, no amount of new roads will ever bring us better commutes for the majority.

If we truly want better commutes for the majority, there’s this: Focus on public transport.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun.

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Updated: 26 Oct 2023, 10:30 PM IST

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