Microsoft's operating systems have exploded in size during the past 20 years or so as their functionality increased to include thousands of features that weren't considered necessary in DOS. Nowhere is this more true than Microsoft's Vista a classic case of an OS so bloated and unwieldy it barely crawled along on machines that could run Linux like a bat out of hell.
So here's one for you. How come Linux (or UNIX for that matter) doesn't suffer from feature creep in the same way? Or does it?
When it comes to Linux distros, there are plenty of super tiny ones like PuppyLinux and Damn Small Linux that will run on low-powered machines, but some of the more popular distros with fancy GUIs actually consume vast amounts of resources. You can run a minimal Ubuntu installation with a command-line interface on a 486 machine with just 32Mb RAM and 300Mb disk space; Ubuntu server requires just 128MB RAM and 500MB of disk space, but that's still a vast amount of resources compared to the graphically rich Windows 95, which needed a humble 386DX and just 4MB of RAM to run, along with about 50MB hard disk space. An installation CD? Didn't need one! The whole Windows 95 OS could be installed from 13 floppies.
Once you enter the desktop realm, Ubuntu's Linux gets really rather portly: A full graphical Ubuntu Jaunty installation needs 5Gb of hard drive space and a recommended 512Mb RAM not so different to Windows Vista or Windows Server 2008, which also need 512Mb RAM, although admittedly they consume a heftier 20Gb hard drive space. And it's not just Ubuntu that's got big. OpenSolaris is a OpenSUSE needs 500Mb disk space and a recommended 512Mb RAM, while OpenSolaris needs 10Gb and 512Mb.
So what's going on. Why are "minimum" and "recommended" install requirements so much bigger today? Are Linux OSes suffering from unnecessary feature creep?
Certainly Linux is no different from any other OS in that it evolves to meet users' needs, so it's not too surprising that many distros are getting bigger. And as hardware gets less expensive it makes sense for an OS to take advantage of the increased resources that are available.
But according to the folks at TuxRadar, it's not just the addition of major new features and support for a huge variety of hardware that's making some distros start to look a touch overweight. Even the basics are getting pudgy.
They surveyed the number of options relating to 16 common UNIX commands in three UNIX/Linux distros from 1975, 1990, and 2009 with some startling results. The cp command has ballooned from no options in 1975 to 28 today, while diff has had to loosen its belt as it exploded from 1 to 27. And a once svelte ps with just 4 options in 1975 now waddles about with 84 today. Not a pretty sight, you could say.
Of course the survey is just a bit of fun you'd expect an OS's common commands to develop over time to take to help users work more efficiently. Linux may not exactly be bloatware, but it's worth remembering that operating systems are just like middle aged people none of them are getting any skinnier.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.