MARCH 26, 2003
Performance Preferred
Software efficiency in hardware benchmarks
by David Nagel
Page 2 of 2

Processor speed is an ephemeral issue. What hardware you have now, even if it's the best available, will look like junk compared with what's coming out six months from now. New chips, faster architectures and zippier graphics boards will be introduced, and, of course, OS updates--optimized for these new systems, not yours--will make your computer run slower than it did when you bought it. (There are some rare exceptions to this latter item, such as Mac OS X 10.2, which offered demonstratively better performance than its immediate predecessors.)

What is not ephemeral is software performance. Despite vast improvements in hardware--in every area--over the last 20 years, software has degraded steadily, becoming far more bulky and slow. Granted, a lot of this software has taken advantage of increases in hardware performance by introducing features never possible before, but performance degradation has been completely disproportionate to the volume of new features.[an error occurred while processing this directive]Now, obviously, no one software developer is the culprit here. Web browsers (like Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer) are great examples of performance decline with no appreciable change in quality. So are the bare-bones applications like text editors, such as Microsoft Word, which perform a computer's most basic functions and yet still manage to decline with every release. Software development, with few exceptions, is quite amazingly sloppy, and it gets sloppier with every new version. This applies to operating systems and individual applications. There are some notable exceptions to this. Apple's Final Cut Pro, Discreet's Combustion and Cleaner, Wildform's Flix and several other applications have all bucked this trend and become, actually, more efficient as they've grown older. And, when discussing performance, I can never exclude the very model of performance excellence, Channel Storm's Live Channel Pro, a real-time broadcast and Web streaming suite that you have to see in action to believe.

But why can't others develop their software with similar efficiency? And, at a more basic level, why is some software not written to take advantage of multiple processors, especially software targeted toward the professional market, where surely performance is a key issue with users? Resources, with some companies, are obviously an issue. But with a company like Adobe, one of the largest software developers in the world, surely the resources are there to keep up--at least--with the smaller developers.

Legacy code is another reason. Few companies--even Adobe--can afford to rebuild an application's entire architecture, though Adobe did go to the trouble of porting to Mac OS X, which certainly presented some opportunity to revamp a bit of the code to take advantage of the Mac's new, more advanced performance features and bring the software in line with the long-standing reality of the Macintosh as a multiprocessing environment.

So why isn't Adobe keeping up, and, more immediately, what has prompted them to publish an article taking jabs at the Macintosh platform, when clearly this is a software issue? Some have speculated that Apple's forthcoming NAB announcements might have something to do with it, perhaps a deepening resentment over competitive issues brought about in the first place by Apple's release of Final Cut Pro and Shake, both rivals to Adobe products, both undoubtedly cutting into Adobe's Mac market share. A tizzy, in other words, at the expense of customers and users. It doesn't seem likely, but, then again, we've seen it before when Apple had its little tiff with ATI over a much more minor issue. The reason my Mac has an Nvidia graphics card is, after all, that ATI leaked a tiny bit of information a day earlier than Apple would have liked--blackballed for a tiny malfeasance that, even at the time, meant nothing to anybody.

Some might point to the fact that the article wasn't so much a slap to the Mac and an insult to Mac users as it was a pat on the back to Dell Precision Workstations. That was the machine used in the comparison. And, at the end of the comparison, Adobe provides a link to its "Gear" sales site, in which Dell Precision Workstations are featured. That, too, is iffy, since Adobe has just as much to gain from Mac bundles as it does with Dell.

Whatever the reason, I can think of at least one way Adobe--or any other developer--could spend its time serving its customers better than insulting them. Look, Adobe's put a lot of effort into making its software some of the best there is. I won't take anything away from the features or usability of After Effects or any other piece of Adobe software. It's good--great, in some cases--and Adobe's workflow is the absolute standard by which all other software is judged. But this doesn't make it the fastest, and it doesn't mean the software can't be continually improved. I, for one, look forward to the day when Adobe can show that its software has achieved maximum efficiency on any given system. Then we can sit back and feel confident that, whichever piece of hardware we're using, we're getting the most out of it.


Contact the author: Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications. You can reach him at [email protected].


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