By Harry McCracken | Friday, May 29, 2009 at 11:18 am
At Google’s I/O developer conference yesterday, company cofounder Sergey Brin spoke of Page’s Law–defined by his partner Larry Page–which states that software gets twice as slow every eighteen months:
Page’s Law is painfully true. It helps to explain why 2001-era PCs which ran Windows XP just fine are incapable of running Windows XP SP3 well, let alone Windows Vista. Actually, it explains, in part, why so many people feel the need to buy new computers every couple of years. We’re not buying faster machines so we can work faster–we’re buying faster machines to compensate for the speed lot to more bloated, inefficient software.
When I got into computers, circa 1978, many machines had 4KB of RAM (one one-millionth of the capacity of a system today with 4GB). 16KB was considered generous. 48KB was downright sinful. And the TRS-80s we used at school ran at a rip-roaring 1.77-MHz.
Result: Just about anyone who wrote software for any personal computer of the time wrote extremely efficient code–you pretty much didn’t have the option of not being maniacally miserly with bytes and processing cycles. I’ve often thought that if today’s programmers were as diligent as those 1970s hackers, there essentially wouldn’t be such a thing as a slow PC today, or one that ran out of memory.
Among the unexpected benefits of the migration of applications from local machines to the Web is this: Programmers once again have to deal with severely constrained resources. There’s no question that an app like Zoho Writer does Microsoft Word-like things in a more efficient way. I’m also heartened by the fact that the browser wars have lately turned into a speed competition. But I still think we’d get even leaner code if developers pretended they were writing for, say, a Vic-20 with 3.5KB of available RAM and a 1-MHz 6502 CPU.