shutterstock_171257759Some tech pundits have long bemoaned the phenomenon of software bloat – increasingly sophisticated and consequently increasingly complex applications that can contain hundreds of thousands or even millions of lines of code. Microsoft Office is a favorite target of these complaints, with between 25 and 50 million lines of code.

Recent trends have been in the direction of smaller, simpler apps that “do more with less” – except that those who use them know that they actually do less. Now, there are times when less is a good thing. If all you want to do with a word processing program is write a letter now and then, Word 2013, with its design tools, collaboration features, and multitude of layout and formatting options is overkill. If you just want to read a PDF doc, there are better alternatives than big, bloated Adobe Reader. Even security software such as that from Norton and McAfee (a.k.a. Intel Security), have suffered from serious feature bloat over the years.

Many praise the iPhone and iPad for their simplified interfaces and complain that Android gives you too many choices and there’s too much to learn (the same argument Mac users have lodged against Windows for decades). Some prefer Google Apps or Microsoft’s new Office Web Apps to the traditional full-fledged Office programs because they’re simpler. But there are others who worry that we’re losing functionality as we strive for simplicity.

I remember my first computer, which ran simple BASIC programs that did things like calculate math problems or generate a random number. But computers got much more sophisticated very quickly, and soon we were running applications that could extrapolate pivot tables and charts from our spreadsheet numbers or lay out sophisticated documents with fancy text formatting, graphics, etc. Software got more and more “intelligent” – to the point where a computer program was able to beat world champion Garry Kasparov at chess. Today we can create professional level animation and video, communicate with others through audio and video in real time across the globe, even participate in distributed computing projects to help search for extraterrestrial life or cure cancer.

Most of us grew up running software applications on our PCs and Macs. Software applications are large programs that can provide a wide scope of functions. Then along came the mobile revolution, and we started dumping our desktops in favor of “devices” (smart phones, tablets) that run “apps.” Apps are small programs that do only one or two things. Application software usually requires a moderate to heavy learning curve, and many people use an application such as Microsoft Office for years and never master more than a fraction of its features. Apps are simple, intuitive, and can usually be used with little or no instruction or study. We’re used to paying anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred dollars for our important applications. Apps are often free or cost only a dollar or two.

Due to the overwhelming success of app-centric mobile devices, apps have now moved to the desktop. With Windows 8, Microsoft made an attempt to merge the two computing models by combining its “modern UI” (the interface formerly known as Metro) with the traditional desktop, giving users the ability to run traditional applications when needed as well as apps when purposes were better served by that. Response from both customers and tech industry pundits has been mixed.

Many have interpreted this as Microsoft dumbing down Windows because along with the apps came the removal of Aero and the flattening of the interface as the company marches slowly but surely toward a “one operating system fits all” world where the phone, tablet and desktop OS will all be the same. This goal of one OS to rule them all (also known as a unified code base if you want to get more technical about it) inevitably requires some simplification of Windows.  What works best on my array of four 27 inch monitors isn’t what I want on my 6 inch smart phone screen.

Windows 8/8.1 (and its successors) has the potential to provide the members of today’s and tomorrow’s tech-centric society the best of both worlds: powerful computing when that’s what we need or want, and a simple app-based way of computing when we’re on the go or just need to perform quick, specific tasks. Such design decisions as removal of the Start menu and the new “friendlier” (but less informative) error messages had many power users worried that Microsoft’s plan was to gradually do away with the desktop environment completely, and the “crippled” desktop included on Windows RT devices did nothing to soothe those fears. However, recent acquiescence to users’ requests in the form of Update 1 – bringing back the Start button and, in a future demonstrated version, a new Start menu, adding the task bar to the Start screen, and other small but important improvements – have given hope to fans of the “old way” that maybe they needn’t contemplate a switch to Linux after all.

Simplification can be a good thing. Dumbing down can be a very bad thing. It’s a fine line to walk, but Microsoft seems to be slowly learning to maintain its balance. Here’s hoping the next version of Windows continues down that path.