Under the Desktop: Hoping Your System's "Minimum Requirements" Will Get the Job Done?

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Are you tired of little white lies? You know the kind: the Enron cover-up or the blurbs featured on sides of software boxes and documentation, called "System Requirements."

Certainly, fellow reader Kathleen Kosky is fed up. She works at a government agency as "the new graphics/web person they never had," and ran into trouble when she tried to get simple memory and processor upgrades for her Windows machine.

Content creators know well the correlation between high-performance hardware and productivity, and may assume that it's universal knowledge. A previous column dealt with the salutary effects of additional RAM on productivity. Kosky wrote that the focus of the department is data processing and that her managers were unfamiliar with the hardware demands of graphics applications.

At the same time, the manufacturer's stated system requirements for Kosky's professional tools provided little support for her request for an upgrade. According to the documentation, she had the minimum system needed to do the job. No matter that the minimum wasn't adequate to let her work effectively -- or sometimes even at all.

"What I would love to see from all the graphic program vendors is a realistic breakdown of the equipment requirement in writing!" Kosky wrote. "I've never seen it said that this software works much better if the [hardware] platform is maxed out.

"Or even better," she continued, "if you need to use more than a few programs at a time, then you must only work on equipment that is the fastest available, has tons of RAM, and you'll have to keep the programs residing on your hard drive -- then get another one for [file] storage. I've had lots of trouble finding this needed documentation for a 'Justification to Upgrade Equipment.'"

This can be a tough sell to management. After all, you're likely asking for a tricked-out machine that's many orders of magnitude faster and cooler than the one sitting on your boss' desk.

The Platform Backstory
To get a developer's viewpoint, I asked Adobe engineer Chris Cox how vendors decide on the minimum hardware and operating-system requirements of imaging applications, such as Adobe Photoshop.

According to Cox, the minimum requirements for RAM and disk space are "literally the minimum that will launch the application and manipulate small (Web graphics) images."

This is interesting information. For the program's system requirement, a software vendor could pick a test image with tiny file sizes specific to a particular workflow.

In this case, the requirement is based on Web images in the range of 4 KB to 50 KB. However, most images from high-resolution digital photographs start at 4MB and scans headed for prepress can be upwards of 50MB. The Web standard for images is an order of magnitude smaller than its prepress cousins. That minimum really is minimal.

When it comes to operating-system requirements, Cox said that two factors determine which operating systems a product will support: the marketplace (the number of current and potential customers running a particular OS); and coding issues, such as the time and expense needed to work around the bugs in a particular OS. For example, Adobe dropped support of Windows 95 in Photoshop 6 "because of bugs AND the fact that it's so old," Cox added.

With the minimum RAM and OS requirements at hand, the developer then simply finds the minimum CPU that will do the job, however painful that experience might be for a potential user.

"Unfortunately, the optimum and realistic requirements vary with the type of usage," Cox admitted. He said the smaller images handled by Web designers will let them get by with less -- for example, a Windows 98 machine with 128 MB of RAM and a Pentium III processor. However, digital photographers and prepress operators will need more, such as Windows 2000, 1.5 GB of RAM, and an Athlon XP 1800 (or comparable Apple Power Macintosh G4 for Mac users).

In addition, for the minimum system requirement, developers assume that users will only run that one program. But many workflows expect to have several imaging applications open at a time, or productivity programs such as a word processor and/or a browser.

"The fact is that in most cases, the minimum requirements are just fine -- if you are willing to settle for pathetic performance," quipped Leonard Rosenthol, Chief Technology Officer at PDF Sages, a Boston-based PDF workflow consultancy. "Anything above that, in terms of either RAM or CPU, simply improves the performance -- just how improved is up to a given person's willingness to suffer."

The Not-so-fine Print
On its face, the answer to the problem looks simple: Developers should move beyond providing just the minimum system required to run a piece of software. We want to know the minimum platform that will be needed to actually use the software in a real-world workflow.

Software developers could take a cue from hardware vendors and provide suggested platforms for entry-level, mid-range, and high-performance work. These platform recommendations could also consider different workflows, such as Web graphics or digital video.

Here's the rub: Software vendors are in the business of selling programs, not putting up a lot of red flags in front of their customers. In spite of everything, some users will be willing to put up with the pain and problematic productivity by running an application on an underpowered platform.

In addition, it's a rare developer that wants to tell you what equipment to buy, or which operating system, processor, or platform you should use. It's a bother and, again, they're in the software business, not the integrated solution business. To a developer, all of the above is the territory for a dealer or consultant.

Still, at the very least, developers should describe more fully what they mean by "minimum" for system requirements -- with the usable configurations preferred.

As usual, I am reminded of a rabbinic saying: "The wise person hears one word -- but understands two." Content creators would do well to follow that axiom when figuring their hardware configuration. When you read "requirements," understand the potential impact on your performance and productivity.

Read more by David Morgenstern.

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