Computer Rot

Published in IEEE Spectrum, July 2007

I glanced wistfully at the new desktop computers in the electronics store. I wanted one, but for a different reason than I have in the past. The new computers weren’t much faster than my old one, the hard drives were only a little larger, and there wasn’t much else in the way of hardware that I might use to rationalize a purchase.

In the past I have lamented that as soon as I would buy a computer it would immediately begin to depreciate. On the way home from the store I imagined that I could hear the computer sizzling as it got obsolete, right there in the back seat of my car. I couldn’t countenance the thought of going back to the store the next day, for fear that I would see the big discount on the obsolete model that I had just been such a chump to buy.

Today Moore’s Law is still at work, increasing the scale of integration relentlessly, but something has happened to its effectiveness. Density of integration keeps increasing, but not clock speed. It used to be easy to be shamed into needing a new computer, because there was that one big number in gigahertz out there on the display that told you how pitiful your present computer was. It didn’t take much math to see how comparatively slow your old clunker was.

Now there is an entirely different reason to buy a new computer – it isn’t hardware rot, but software rot. My old computer was once such a good friend. From time to time it was, admittedly, an enemy, but in the end it simply became a stranger. I have no idea what programs and data are in there anymore. All that beautiful technology in the computer of which I have been so proud has succumbed to an ordinary rule of life – that all closets and drawers eventually become filled with stuff that is never used. This can probably be proved using queuing theory, but I take it as an axiom right up there with umbrellas disappearing into the fourth dimension and paper clips mating in the dark.

So my old computer is filled with stuff that I don’t remember putting there. Occasionally I try to remove something, and I get a message like “other programs may use this file: are you sure you want to delete this?” Well, if you put it that way, what can I say? When the computer boots up, I hear the beeps from things it couldn’t execute, and when I shut down, it gives me this warning about closing programs I’ve never heard of that, if I terminate early, may lose valuable data. Both startup and shutdown take forever, and in between the computer is sluggish, seemingly being disdainful of anything that I want to do.

I don’t think this morass is entirely my fault. My computer bears a lot of blame too. Years ago I wrote one of these essays musing about whether people turned off their computers at night when they went to bed. I confessed that due to my childhood training, I felt compelled to turn mine off. I was surprised to get a lot of mail saying how silly my compulsion was. Ever since I’ve left it on overnight, but now I’m reconsidering the wisdom of that practice.

The other night I snuck up my computer in the dark. You have to be real quiet, so it doesn’t know you’re there. The screen was dark, of course, but I could see the disk access light blinking away, as well as the indicator of Internet activity. What was it doing, I worried? With a small noise, I gave away my presence, and suddenly the indicator lights blinked off. The computer feigned innocence, but I’m sure that the numbers of incomprehensible dlls, undetected cookies, and devious spies were growing there in the unsupervised darkness.

The registry in my computer is beyond repair. I can’t go there anymore. My only hope is to start over, and that’s why I yearn for a new, clean computer. I think, though, that the computer vendors are making a mistake in their advertising. The descriptions in the store shout out about all the software that is packaged with the computer. I don’t want any of it. Mostly it’s lobotomized trial stuff that they want to entice you to buy or upgrade later anyway. What they really should proclaim is: “This computer comes with absolutely nothing except the bare operating system!” Maybe there should be a green environmental sticker that certifies system cleanliness.

On the other hand, maybe this is a plot. The industry needs to sell new computers to everyone every few years. If clock speed isn’t going to do it, what else is there? Ah, but here we have an answer – software rot!

Robert Lucky