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Computer Rot

3 min read

The other day I glanced wistfully at the new desktop computers in the electronics store. 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. Why, then, did I want one anyway?

In the past, the hardware was justification enough. It got better so fast that I would lament the value that was lost during my drive home from the store. I imagined that I could hear the computer sizzling into obsolescence, right there in the backseat of my car. I couldn’t countenance the thought of going back to the store the next day, for fear that I would see a 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 pitifully slow your old computer was.

Now there is an entirely different reason to buy a new computer: software rot. My old computer, once mainly a good friend--only occasionally an enemy--has simply become 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--its closets and drawers are filled with stuff I never use. 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 I don’t remember putting there. Occasionally I try to remove something and 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 it down, it warns me about closing programs I’ve never heard of, that if terminated early, may lose valuable data. Both start-up and shutdown take forever, and in between the computer is sluggish, seemingly disdainful of anything I want to do.

I don’t think this morass is entirely my fault. My computer bears a lot of the 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 because of 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 then, I’ve left it on overnight, but now I’m reconsidering the wisdom of this practice.

The other night I snuck up on 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, as well as the indicator of Internet activity. What could it be doing, I wondered. 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 numbers of incomprehensible DLLs, undetected cookies, and devious spies were growing there under cover of 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 stores 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!

About the Author

ROBERT W. LUCKY (IEEE Fellow), now retired, was vice president for applied research at Telcordia Technology in Red Bank, N.J. (

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