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A sysadmin’s take on bloatware

An administrator’s take on bloatware. When I finally got around to making my rounds over Sunday dinner, I found a link to a programmer’s take on bloatware  on Frank McPherson’s site.

I have to admit, Joel Spolsky does a pretty nice job of making bloatware sound like much of a problem.

Except for one thing: Mr. Spolsky lives in a developer’s world, where the job is to crank out code. I have to live in a world where people don’t care about software, they’ve just gotta get the pamphlets mailed, the questions answered, the books written, the meetings planned, and the money raised. In this world, software upgrades are a distraction and need to be unobtrusive.

Excel 5.0 and Word 6.0 were hogs in their day. Today they seem positively svelte. Their descendants have bloated to 10 times the size, and what have they added? I’m not qualified to talk about Excel. I use Excel to calculate the prices of computer components and project savings. I could do the same thing with the original DOS version of VisiCalc.

I believe I’m very qualified to talk about Word though. I wrote a 292-page book in Word 97, along with another 300 pages’ worth of manuscript you’ll never see (you can thank O’Reilly and Associates for that, but no, I’m not interested in talking about it), and numerous magazine and newspaper articles. So I’ve spent a lot of time in Word. And what does Word 2000 add that Word 6.0 didn’t have?

Lots of crashes, for one. A facility to download clipart more easily. And font menus that display the font names in the fonts themselves, so you can instantly see what a font looks like. Type-as-you-go spelling and grammar checking that you should turn off anyway.

Word 97 had a slightly smaller number of crashes, type-as-you-go checking and the clipart facility. All it lacked is the fancy font menu, but I had a freeware add-in for that.

That’s not worth a tenfold increase in disk space. It’s not worth the larger number of crashes. Frankly it’s not even worth the upgrade price. It’s a colossal waste of money, unless you absolutely must use the new file formats. I’d be a whole lot better off spending that money on more RAM or a faster hard drive, or banking it for my next motherboard/CPU upgrade.

But beyond that, there’s a hidden cost behind the cost of the software and the cost of the hardware it takes to run it (admittedly miniscule; Office 2000 runs just fine on a Celeron-533, and you can pick up a closeout motherboard and a Celeron-533 for a hundred bucks, while a 20-gig IDE hard drive costs $99).

I’m currently faced with the task of rolling this behemoth out to 1,000 PCs. It sucks. First of all, we’re looking at shoving about 600 gigabytes of data down an already-congested 10-megabit LAN to install this sorry excuse for crap. So much for doing that over lunch break. Second, assuming a 10-megabit LAN with no traffic using the no-questions-asked install (the one thing I like about Office 2000), you’re looking at half an hour to install it on a reasonably modern PC. Five hundred hours of my labor, at time and a half since it can’t happen during the normal workday, and I still have my regular duties to do anyway? Hang on while I do some quick math. Hey, I’m starting to like the sound of this now. That’d make a nice downpayment on a house. Or I could pay cash for a midrange car. Or I could dump it into a nice safe investment and have a great start on paying for college for my firstborn, 18 years after whenever s/he comes along. But something tells me my employer really isn’t going to like the sound of this.

But that’s not the only hidden expense. Installing Office 2000 with the same level of functionality my users are used to having with Office 97 will require about 500 megs’ worth of free space, preferably on drive C. But Microsoft, being a bunch of morons (or having absolutely no grip on reality, I’m not sure which), decided it’d be cool to install NT 4.0 on a FAT partition, then convert it to NTFS if you specified NTFS in the first place. Trust me, give a computer user two gigs on drive C and six months, and they’ll fill it to bursting. The vast majority of my users don’t have enough free space to install Office 97. Sure, they can clean up the mess. But that’ll take most of them at least an hour or so to do, and that’s time they could be spending doing real work. The value of an employee’s time is usually much more than their hourly salary, so we’ll just call that another 20 grand flushed down the toilet. Thanks bunches, Gates and Ballmer. Maybe this is part of the reason why that ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” has come down on you.

Want another hidden expense? I know you do. This has less to do with bloatware and more to do with poorly written installation routines, but when you take a PC with zero fragmentation, then install Office 2000, Diskeeper Light will report an unacceptable level of fragmentation when you’re done. And, admittedly, the systems do feel slower afterward. Fortunately, users can defragment their own systems. At half an hour per PC, assume another 10 grand gone. Make it five. A lot of users can do other things while they’re doing that, but a lot of them will sit there and watch it defrag.

Microsoft, may you live in exceedingly interesting times.

Sure, a corporate-wide rollout of Office 2000 eats up a measly $5,000 worth of disk space that would otherwise probably go to Backstreet Boys MP3s users shouldn’t be keeping on their computers anyway (yes, I’ve found Backstreet Boys MP3s on our network–honest!) and we’ve already paid for the software. But the hidden costs are obnoxious. And in St. Louis, where you can’t get good IT help for love or money because there’s such a shortage, if my colleagues and I decide we like having lives and don’t want the overtime, my employer is screwed. Maybe we can find some high school and college students to do this for $8 an hour, but that’ll be a tough sell to some people. Our security manager may have problems with us giving a handful of part-timers administrative rights to all the workstations on our LAN. As he should.

Don’t let anyone fool you. When you’re trying to manage a network of 1,000 users whose primary job function is something other than technology, disk space costs a lot more than $0.00071 per megabyte.

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