Software bloat

Software bloat

Software bloat, also known as bloatware or elephantware, is a term used in both a neutral and disparaging sense, to describe the tendency of newer computer programs to be larger, or to use larger amounts of system resources (mass storage space, processing power or memory) than necessary for the same or similar benefits from older versions to its users. Additionally, the term bloatware is used in common language for pre-installed, huge software bundles, mostly consisting of demos and trial ware.


Software developers involved in the industry during the 1970s had severe limitations on disk space and memory. Every byte and clock cycle counted, and much work went into fitting the programs into available resources.

This situation has now reversed. Resources are perceived as cheap, and rapidity of coding and headline features for marketing are seen as priorities. In part, this is because technological advances have since multiplied processing capacity and storage density by orders of magnitude, while reducing the relative costs by similar orders of magnitude (see Moore's Law). Additionally, the spread of computers through all levels of business and home life has produced a software industry many times larger than it was in the 1970s.

Finally software development tools and approaches often result in changes throughout a program to accommodate each feature, leading to a large scale inclusion of code which affects the main operation of the software, and is required in order to support functions that themselves may be only rarely used. In particular, the advances in resources available has led to tools which allow easiest development of code, with less priority given to end efficiency.

Niklaus Wirth has summed up the situation in Wirth's Law, which states that software speed is decreasing more quickly than hardware speed is increasing.

Reasons for existence

In his 2001 essay Strategy Letter IV: Bloatware and the 80/20 Myth, Joel Spolsky argues that while 80% of the users only use 20% of the features (a variant on the Pareto principle), each one uses different features. Thus, "lite" software editions turn out to be useless for most, as they miss that one or two special features that are present in the "bloated" version. Spolsky sums the article with a quote by Jamie Zawinski referring to Netscape:

"Convenient though it would be if it were true, Mozilla is not big because it's full of useless crap. Mozilla is big because your needs are big. Your needs are big because the Internet is big. There are lots of small, lean web browsers out there that, incidentally, do almost nothing useful. But being a shining jewel of perfection was not a goal when we wrote Mozilla.


Microsoft Windows has been accused of being bloated. For example, with reference to the most recent version, Windows Vista, Microsoft engineer Eric Traut commented that "A lot of people think of Windows as this large, bloated operating system, and that's maybe a fair characterization, I have to admit." He went on to say that, "at its core, the kernel, and the components that make up the very core of the operating system, is actually pretty streamlined.". Former PC World editor Ed Bott has expressed skepticism, noting that almost every single operating system that Microsoft has ever sold had been criticized as 'bloated' when it first came out; even those now regarded as the exact opposite, such as MS-DOS.

Comparison of Microsoft Windows Recommended System requirements
Windows version Processor Memory Hard disk
Windows 95 25 MHz 8 MB ~50 MB
Windows 98 66 MHz 24 MB 140–255 MB
Windows Me 150 MHz 32 MB 320 MB
Windows 2000 Server 133 MHz 64 MB 1 GB
Windows XP 300 MHz 128 MB 1.5 GB
Windows Vista 800 MHz 512 MB 15 GB
CD- and DVD-burning applications such as Nero Burning ROM have become criticized for being bloated. Superfluous features not specifically tailored to the end user are sometimes installed by default through express setups.

When AVG 8 came out, it was heavily accused of being bloated, relative to previous installments such as AVG 7.

Alternatives to software bloat

Some applications, such as Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Office, package additional functionality in plug-ins, extensions or add-ons which are downloaded separately from the main application. These can be created by the software developer and often by third parties. Plug-ins enable extra functionality which might have otherwise been packaged in the main program.

Allowing extensions reduces the space used on any one machine, because even though the application plus the "plug-in interface" plus all the plug-ins is larger than the same functionality compiled into one monolithic application, it allows each user to install only the particular add-on features used by that user, rather than force every user to install a much larger monolithic application that includes 100% of the available features.

Open-source software may use a similar technique using preprocessor directives to selectively include features at compile time. This is easier to implement than a plugin system, but has the obvious disadvantage that a user who wants a specific set of features must compile the program from source.

Sometimes software becomes bloated because of "creeping featurism" (Zawinski's Law of Software Envelopment), also called bullet-point engineering. One way to reduce that kind of bloat is described by the Unix philosophy: "Write programs that do one thing and do it well".

See also


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