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Computer users fight 'bloatware'

August 12, 1998
Web posted at: 4:30 PM EDT

by Sharon Gaudin and Kim S. Nash

(IDG) -- Corporate users, increasingly frustrated with the ballooning size of applications and operating systems, are taking their troubles straight to the vendors. But sporadic relief is all they're getting so far.

Citing the administrative and financial pressures of bloatware, two retail groups are preparing to take on Microsoft Corp. And other users already have persuaded Lotus Development Corp. and Corel Corp. to trim the fat off their own office software.

"My problem is, I'm forced to upgrade all the time -- not for functionality I want, but for features someone [at Microsoft] wanted for me," said Roger Walters, chief information officer at Booz Allen & Hamilton, Inc., a consulting and accounting firm in McLean, Va. "I need to stay current, though, to get good [technical] support. We're rats on a treadmill."

Walters said he visited Microsoft in October to explain why he doesn't want huge operating system software, but the company didn't seem to listen. "[Microsoft is] working in the best interest of Microsoft, and I don't think they listen to users," he said.

Walters said Microsoft officials told him he was in the minority. The company responds to most customers, who want more features in each upgrade -- and increased size comes with the package. Microsoft executives interviewed for this story echoed that attitude.

The lines of code and storage space taken up by software, whether applications or operating systems, are exploding. Microsoft's Windows 98 and Office 97 are code-heavy com-pared with earlier versions, which weren't exactly light.

And Windows NT is reportedly ballooning from 16 million lines of code in Version 4.0 to anywhere from 25 million to 40 million in Version 5.0. Although Microsoft hasn't set a release date, observers and users have said they expect NT 5.0 to debut in the middle of or late next year.

That bloating poses a slew of problems. Corporate users say it uses up server and PC disk space, takes longer to install and requires added troubleshooting and staff training. It also creates a haven in which bugs can hide.

As Windows NT has grown, so has the difficulty of troubleshooting problems, said Scott Langdoc, CIO at Raley's, Inc., a supermarket chain in Sacramento, Calif.

Raley's is rolling out an NT-based check-authorization package to its 115 supermarkets. But both the application and NT are so complex that "it takes a longer period of time to determine the source problems and corrections," Langdoc said. He said Raley's has tripled its investment in NT training from a year ago, though he declined to state a dollar figure.

A Microsoft spokesman said NT 5.0 will be thoroughly tested before its release -- one of the reasons Beta 2 was postponed from June to the end of the summer [CW, July 6].

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Hardware strain

Bob Frase, CIO at United Paperworkers International Union in Nashville, said the increasing size of applications and operating systems is putting a strain on his hardware -- and on his budget. He said he is still using Windows 3.1 on some machines because he doesn't want the time and expense of upgrading his hardware to handle Windows 95 or 98.

"It eats up my hardware, my time and my bottom line," Frase said.

And that's exactly what a group of frustrated retailers plan to tell Microsoft, which not only controls most desktops but also produces the lion's share of fat software.

Ken Brame, CIO at Service Merchandise Corp. in Nashville, is trying to organize an effort in two major retail trade groups -- the National Retail Federation and the Association of Retail Technology Standards -- to get Microsoft to scale down. Ideally, he said, he would like Microsoft to offer "lite" versions of its operating systems.

Brame said he confronted Steve Ballmer, now Microsoft's president, about the issue a few months ago at a Microsoft-sponsored retail conference in New Orleans. But according to conference transcripts, Ballmer, who acknowledged that the company "could give better guidance about hardware requirements," didn't make any promises to change.

What users want

Brame, who noted that other members have tried coercing Microsoft on their own, said he hopes to rally support for a joint effort in October when both groups have their annual meetings. Microsoft's answer is that the company is giving users what they want -- more and more features. Company executives said they are simply producing more code because they are offering customers more functions. And more functions are what they are going to continue to focus on.

But Lotus and Corel, which chase Microsoft in the office software market, have heard similar complaints from users. And both companies are answering the call.

Lotus' ESuite, a set of office-oriented applets that run on demand, was shipped early this year to offer users a lite version of the company's SmartSuite office software, according to Andrew Mahon, senior manager for strategic marketing at Lotus.

As for Lotus' Notes client, it has grown bigger with each release, Mahon acknowledged. But the next version, 5.0, will be smaller partly in response to user complaints, he said. The minimum install of the client will be 12M bytes, compared with the 30M bytes of the current version.

At Corel, Derek Burney, senior vice president of engineering, said the minimum install for WordPerfect is 3M bytes smaller in Version 8 than in Version 7. And Version 8 of Draw, a graphics application, was made to take up less disk space.

"It was a hugely concerted effort to make WordPerfect smaller," Burney said.

But some analysts wonder if lite software will ever fly, because an attempt in the early 1990s to handle perennial complaints about fat software didn't spark many sales.

For example, WordPerfect Corp., now owned by Corel, offered the LetterPerfect word processor, and Oracle Corp. had the Oracle Lite database.

But the skinny products didn't sell well because users feared they would lose advanced features that help them get a business edge, said Jeffrey Tarter, editor of "Softletter," a newsletter in Watertown, Mass.

"I can't think of a single lite version of any major product that has ever succeeded," he added. "It may be inelegant and sluglike, but bloatware sells."

There are other worries about lite software, said Priscilla Tate, director of the Technology Managers Forum, a user group in New York.

For example, if a full-feature package runs at headquarters but a so-called lite version resides in field offices, users may not be able to exchange files easily because formats may differ, Tate said. "No one wants to be in a backwater of technology," she said.

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