Why are we waiting?

I just clicked on a calendar appointment enclosure in an email. Nothing happened, so I clicked again. Then suddenly two copies of the appointment appeared in my iCal calendar. Why on earth did the computer take so long to respond to my click? I waited an eternity – maybe even as long as a second.

The human brain has a clock speed of about 15 Hz. So anything that happens in less than 70 milliseconds seems instant. The other side of this coin is that when your computer takes longer than 150 ms to respond to you, it’s slowing you down.

I have difficulty fathoming how programmers are able to make modern computers run so slowly. The original IBM PC ran at well under 2 MIPS. The computer you are sitting at is around ten thousand times faster. It’s over 100 times faster than a Cray-1 supercomputer. This means that when your computer keeps you waiting for a quarter of a second, equally inept programming on the same task on an eighties-era IBM PC would have kept you waiting 40 minutes. I don’t know about you, but I encounter delays of over a quarter of a second with distressing frequency in my daily work.

I blame Microsoft. Around Intel the joke line about performance was “what Andy giveth, Bill taketh away.” This was actually a winning strategy for decades of Microsoft success: concentrate on features and speed of implementation and never waste time optimizing for performance because the hardware will catch up. It’s hard to argue with success, but I wonder if a software company obsessed with performance could be even more successful than Microsoft?

One Reply to “Why are we waiting?”

  1. Related rant from David Pogue:
    Not yet the season for a Nook

    “Worse, the touch screen is balky and nonresponsive, even for the Nook product manager who demonstrated it for me. The only thing slower than the color strip is the main screen above it. Even though it’s exactly the same E Ink technology that the Kindle and Sony Readers use, the Nook’s screen is achingly slower than the Kindle’s. It takes nearly three seconds to turn a page — three times longer than the Kindle — which is really disruptive if you’re in midsentence.

    “Often, you tap some button on the color strip — and nothing happens. You wait for the Nook to respond, but there’s no progress bar, no hourglass, no indication that the Nook “heard” you. So you tap again — but now you’ve just triggered a second command that you didn’t want.

    “It takes four seconds for the Settings panel to open, 18 seconds for the bookstore to appear (over Wi-Fi), and 8 to 15 seconds to open a book or newspaper for the first time, during which you stare at a message that says “Formatting.”

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