Bloatware. It's an ugly term for an ugly phenomenon: the tendency of software developers to cram in every imaginable feature, including some that shouldn't have been imagined in the first place. Creeping featuritis rarely results in better programs. It often makes them harder to use. And it can leave them sluggish, insecure, and unreliable.
Suddenly, though, I'm feeling optimistic that software isn't doomed to grow ever more portly and lethargic. The biggest reason for my upbeat mood is Firefox, our Best Bet among Web browsers in this issue's "The New Web Challengers."
The fact that we're comparing browsers at all is in part a response to the accumulating user disgruntlement at a piece of bloatware--albeit aging bloatware--known as Internet Explorer. "There's never not been competition in the browser market," says Scott Spanbauer, the PC World contributing editor and Internet Tips columnist who rated browsers for the story. "But with Firefox, a small group of people made a browser that's faster and better." (Scott, a 20-year PCW veteran, should know: He's been reviewing browsers since IE was the underdog.)
Ironically, Firefox was born of bloat: It descends from Netscape Communicator, the kitchen-sink Net suite that morphed into the Mozilla open-source project in 1998. Pre-Firefox versions of Mozilla were corpulent, too: "At first, Mozilla involved putting in everything," says Scott. "With Firefox, they said, 'Let's keep it simple.'"
In other words, Firefox focuses on doing ordinary tasks uncommonly well. Its 'Find in This Page' tool, for example, sits below the browser window, where it's both convenient and unobtrusive. In contrast, the Find features in IE and other browsers float on top of the page and may hide the word you're looking for.
Equally important are the things Firefox doesn't do at all--such as support Internet Explorer's ActiveX controls. These downloadable applets, which give IE new capabilities on the fly, introduce security risks that Firefox users don't incur. (True, some sites still use ActiveX and therefore insist that you use IE--but more and more are adopting Web standards that ensure they'll work at least as well in Firefox.) Nor does Firefox hook deeply into Windows itself, another aspect of IE that has proved to be a mixed blessing at best.
Firefox isn't the only keep-it-simple tool that rose from Communicator's ashes. Sharing its origins are Thunderbird, an e-mail program; and Nvu, a Web-authoring app that's still in beta. All three programs have streamlined designs; run on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X; and are absolutely free. As Scott points out, they add up to "a suite, but it's light, clean, and modular."
These apps aren't the most feature-rich in their categories, but they don't feel dumbed down. Matter of fact, they feel smartened up--and I'd love to see everything from office suites to system tools take some cues from them.
This Month's Digital World
A $200 HDTV option, a headset that zaps background noise, and a personal robot are just a few of the products in "Innovations 2005," the cover story in PC World's companion publication. PC World subscribers can download DW for free in Adobe Reader format. PCW copies sold at retail outlets include the print version. Check out www.digital-world.com for more information.