September 3, 2009Doug Hadden
The introduction of the new version of the Apple operating system, Snow Leopard, has generated controversy: bloated software, usability and environmental sustainability.
The Snow Leopard Controversy
A Wall Street Journal review points out that Snow Leopard has few new features: ‘Apple has made it clear the new OS wouldn’t sport new eye-popping features, but would instead be focused on what it calls “refinements” and “fine-tuning.”’ A Wired Magazine review concludes that Snow Leopard provides “minor improvements.” But, a Forbes Magazine review concludes that Snow Leopard is “a remarkable act of discipline that has broken a decades-long trend toward ever more bloated operating system software.”
All reviews point out that Snow Leopard uses far less disk space and operates much faster than the previous version. Most conclude that this is somehow unimportant relative to potential new features.
Do features represent value?
Alan Cooper explains why so many technical products fail in his book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Features often get in the way of usability. Many new technology products have succeeded by having less features and better usability than incumbent products.
Harvard University professor Clay Christensen has shown that the ability to consume new product features rises slower than vendors’ ability to add features. New features are perceived to have low value. Customers resist upgrading to new versions of software because the costs (time and licenses) exceed value.
Enterprise software has reached this “tipping point”. Customers do not want to upgrade to new versions of operating systems or ERP software. The irony is that “maintenance” is representing higher portions of enterprise software revenue. Forcing customers to upgrade to new versions of software reduces vendor support costs. And, many enterprise software vendors are increasing maintenance prices.
Feature bloat and usability
Feature proliferation makes software less usable. Enterprise software bloat has been identified as a usability problem for more than a decade. An analysis by ASA Research in 2005 addressed the concern of “bloated, over-priced, complex ERP solutions.”
Feature bloat is of particular concern in the public sector and in emerging countries. There is more staff movement in the public sector than the private sector. Many emerging countries have limited human capacity. Complex software with feature bloat is the “cost of doing business” in the private sector and a burden in the public sector. Any improvement in usability by removing unneeded features can improve productivity and reduce training costs for all users.
Feature bloat and environmental sustainability
Every new feature and every new database table consumes computing resources. Computing technology has become more efficient but more widespread. This has generated concern that ICT4D, Information and Computer Technology for Development, may be environmentally unsustainable. Many emerging countries do not have reliable or clean sources of energy. Computing technology may be contributing to climate change.
Some computer and network device manufacturers have begun to reduce product power footprints. Software manufacturers need to follow Apple’s lead to reduce bloat.