Klaus Zimmermann's Corner

Is Digital Minimalism a thing? Or: why bloatware today means files

Bloatware is nothing new, neither a recent trend. It does, however, become more obvious as as we step forward in time and the programs we previously thought were kind of too much now look tiny in comparison to their current bloated versions.

Oh yes, we all know bloatware. Most of us came to Linux after spending at least a good decade of our lives dealing with a famous series of them: Microsoft Windows. But recently, I've been concerned with a different type of bloatware, one that does not receive nearly as much the concerns that it should: bloated files.

Remember when Apple launched the first iPod in 2001, with the sales pitch that it contained "enough space to hold a thousand songs?" Guess what: that ludicrous amount of space was only about 5GB. Chances are that the device you're using to read this post today could fit all that data in its RAM alone. Still, there was a special kind of magic to it that allowed so much music to be storable there even with the laughable space by today's standards. That magic is the small size of the files.

In computing, size matters and, unlike what some real-life standards might say, smaller is always more desirable. MP3s just mushroomed into popularity and survived the oblivion of wav because they were smaller and thus easier to share without losing any quality. The whole concept of "piracy" (or whatever corporate media is calling it today) worked quite well along because the files used were small enough and portable, easy to share even among crowded comm lines.

Yet, despite "piracy" still booming, I wrote this last paragraph in the past tense. Why?

Because I believe that the era of small and reasonably-sized files is past - and soon going to be extinct.

A quick look around The Pirate Bay today shows that movies do not come anymore in sizes less than 1GB each, because of course we all need 1080p+ resolution to watch a ripped video in our freaking smartphone screens. "Oh, it's quality," they say, as if it would make a difference. You're not on a private movie theater, dude. You're gonna either watch this on your 30" monitor or your 6" phone screen. Small resolution is absolutely fine.

Same thing applies for pictures these days. Smartphones capture HD photos easily over 3000px wide. What for, except for maybe aiding surveillance agencies to spot stuff in things people share? Or maybe make telcos and hard drive manufacturers happy that we need more and more of their stuff. A picture that you're going to only see for a few seconds on a phone screen does not have to be much bigger than your phone's screen! HEIC and WEBP are also another issue: why reinvent something that wasn't broken in first place, and make it larger in the process?

I think the only thing that did not suffer from this "inflation" is music. MP3s and OGGs are still relatively unchanged from the old days of Napster, and here's me hoping they stay like that.

Call me old-fashioned, whatever, but people "needing" more space for data that wasn't supposed to be that big in the first place is ludicrous. I've recently embarked on a little quest to downsize every image and video that I own. It's easy to do it in batches, using the ImageMagick package for resizing images in several ways, and the swiss-army knife of ffmpeg to downsize videos. By setting up a custom shell script for example, it's possible to automate the process and let it run in the background while you do something else.

I myself make a point to halve the width of every photo that I've taken with my phone, and to reduce every HD video that I have to less than 720p. No need - whatsoever - for anything larger than that, and as a result I save up to 75% of all space required to store this data. That's one of the reasons why I've pretty much never needed anything more than 300GB to back up all my data.

The economy inflates, prices inflate, things get more expensive and software gets bloated over time because "features." Files, however, don't have to go the same way. You don't have to play the bloat game here, and I encourage you not to.

What do you think about bloatware coming to files: am I overreacting or file sizes have really ballooned over the decade?

Last updated on 10/24/20