Computing minimalism: try this software, be more productive Part 1

By Greg Hill

What is computing minmalism? And why should you give a damn?

Oh OK, I may, just may, be a part time geek. But I have friends, a healthy love life and I have not played laser tag since I was a kid. So that's my disclaimer done.

Now, I'm going to try and persuade you to think differently about the way you use a computer. Even if (unlike me) you are a total non geek. Even if you couldn't care less about computers and use them because you have to, even if you don't go as far as I do with my methods, I hope to just change the way you approach the idea of computer use, very slightly.

Here's what I'm building up to - I believe that a lot of computer software we use today is bloated, clumsy and non-conducive to productivity. In other words: it's slowing you down.

"Word processing was a solved problem in 1984. By 1987 spreadsheets had all the functions a normal person would ever use. Databases took a little longer, but by 1990 that was sorted. An infant could have been born that day and by now would be almost of age to vote and we've seen no real improvement in productivity since."

That was a quote from Mikel Kirk that I think sums the situation up beautifully. Think about it - how many features on your office suite or your web browser do you use? How many of them were not available on the same program back in the year 2000? Unless you happen to be involved in Desk Top Publishing or database maintenance - or perhaps even then? - I'm willing to bet the answer is: "one or less".

And yet the software you used has become far bigger, far more hungry on your resources and most probably far more demanding of your attention. You don't have to think too hard to come with examples; Ipod users normally use Itunes, a program that not only uses an oceanic amount of memory just to load up, but also dominates the user's entire music collection. It will sort them, it will play them, it will allow you to search for information about that new band online. No need to use your brain, just use Itunes.

Microsoft Word users have an even greater pleasure. For the last five years or more, Word has given you the utmost pleasure of completing your work for you. You want a bullet list? It's done! You want to line up all those answers for the quiz? It's already done! What's that? You didn't actually want to do that? Oh well, you can always manually undo it all. Oh and don't forget to hunt down the "auto complete" menu and uncheck every box before it happens again.

OK, so sometimes we have problems, but it's all meant to be user friendly right? I mean, these extra features are designed for people who aren't familiar with computers and need help, no?

It would be nice to believe that, but in my cynical mind I can't help but think that such designs are utilised for another purpose; to make damn sure you stick with that proprietary software that you just installed. The less you question Itunes, the more likely you are to use it. The less choice you have over how you play music, the more often you see the Apple logo. The more often Itunes "helps" you organise your music collection, the more likely you are to visit the Itunes store.

You get the picture. Certain companies design the software this way not to help people who are unsure, but to "help" people who are stupid, because 'stupid" is how they think of you.

OK so maybe there's a problem, and maybe some of the software is big and clunky, but what does it matter? Computers are getting faster everyday and besides, everyone uses this software so what choice do we have?

Well on the first charge, the answer is not so clear cut. Remember that quote I gave you earlier, software is growing more bloated at the same rate as our PC's are becoming souped up. There seems little evidence and no guarantee that we humans are becoming more productive.

As for "why worry?" Well perhaps you shouldn't. If you can stand having your intelligence insulted and if you don't care about working at well under full productivity then maybe there's no problem.

For me though, it's matter of principle. I simply will not allow some lazy, overpaid programmers to use up a chunk of my RAM just to play an MP3. I simply cannot abide using a "word processor" that insists it knows better than me about what I want to do and lumbers me with 101 featuresthat 99% of us will never use. I will not surf the Internet with a browser than takes an age to start up and a lifetime to open a page simply because it's from Microsoft. I prefer to open my mind a little more rather than accept such nonsense.

I want applications that do one thing and do them well, whilst getting the hell out of my way when I want them to. That's what real productivity is.

But even if that doesn't matter to you, there is another factor: cost. The alternatives I will propose to you are either totally free of cost or much, much lower than the prices you pay from the fat cat companies for the overblown nonsense.

In my next blog on computing minimalism I will propose two solutions. For the shy user I will simply suggest a few pieces of alternative software that can easily be installed (and uninstalled) on Windows and tried out. After that, I'll take things a bit further and go into some really lightweight and efficient applications for GNU/Linux and maybe Windows too.