Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width!

Written By : Wayne Brooker
August 2004

Back when the primary means for distributing data was the floppy disk I found myself constantly awestruck at the complexity of some of the games and apps that could be shoehorned into such a small space. With a ceiling of under 1.4MB to contend with, programmers became incredibly skilled at writing tight, efficient code that got the job done perfectly well but without all the frills and flourishes we're used to today. Comments were stripped from the finished code, creative techniques were used to combine functions and shorten routines and Easter eggs were left to the Easter bunny.

Unfortunately it seems that the recent, rapid developments in affordable large-scale data storage has led to a situation where program sizes are increasing uncontrollable. We may be seeing more functionality but we're also seeing software written in a sloppy fashion and stuffed with needless features to try and compensate for their lack of refinement and usability.

The advantage to a 1.4MB limit is that it does a very good job of focussing your mind while conversely, knowing you have 4+ GB at your disposal means you can lighten up on the self-discipline and spend less time in the planning stage. This may very will speed the time taken to get a new product on the shelves, but it also seems to mean more bugs and flaws in the finished code.

I suppose a good example of this would be Windows itself. Sold as an operating system, Windows has become one of the prime examples of bloatware at its very worst. While I can see the value in basic tools such as a calculator, I find it hard to justify the time and expense, both to Microsoft and to the end user, in pointless fluff like Movie Maker or Paint which usually get ignored in favour of preferred alternatives which are almost always better and very often free. Quite how I'm supposed to feel good about being forced to pay for these apps when even basic functionality is missing from the core of this operating system is something I've never quite come to terms with.

What worries me most is that this principle of adding as many features as possible to your product so as to appeal to as broad a market as possible is becoming commonplace. As an example, I recently went shopping for a new mobile phone and I set out with a very simply criteria. I wanted a phone that was rugged, reliable and easy to use. I wasn't interested in the camera, I already have one. Nor was I interested in looks, I mean it's a phone for God's sake not a pair of shoes. Unfortunately it seems that I'm a minority when it comes to phones, and because models are on the shelf for such a relatively short period of time manufacturers are hell-bent on adding as many features as they can to every single model in their range so as to shift boxes. People like me, "niche customers" who would happily sacrifice the el-crappo VGA camera, 40 note polyphonic ringtones and cheesy animated menus in return for a durable aluminium fascia and bomb-proof design can go and whistle, unless we want to pick up one of those overpriced "older" models that companies leave on their product portfolio to appeal to the traditionalist who thinks its acceptable to pay more money for an item that's probably cheaper to manufacture than anything else in the current range.

That's not me, I won't be fooled by the idea that if it's expensive it must be good. Don't get me wrong, I'm prepared to pay a little over the odds for quality, but it has to be a quality I can see and feel, not just a perceived quality. Take the alloy wheels and tinted windows off my car by all means, but give me better anticorrosion measures or uprated brakes instead. Don't just sell it me for more on the premise that not having alloy wheels and tinted windows is in some way "trendy" or "hip". And don't force me to buy air conditioning and go-faster-stripes, if I want them I'll ask for them.

The relentless march of technology is impacting every one of us. Short product lives mean manufacturers have to add features to attract buyers, but they also have to turn a profit, and this means heavy duty specifications built with light duty manufacturing techniques. Your last TV may have lasted 20 years but you can bet your new one won't, even if it did come with stereo speakers, flat screen, silver cabinet and a built-in calendar and moodlights.

I'll end this article with a call to manufacturers worldwide. Modern production techniques are great and products that drip with all the latest features are essential, but remember that there are a small group of people out here who would gladly sacrifice all of that for some good ole' fashioned quality and durability, and perhaps the real reason why retro is so big at the moment is not just about the styling, it's about the build!


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