Friday, September 08, 2006

Why Web Apps Could Be Bad For The Environment -- the Layman's Version

I was telling a friend about my last article about this topic and he mentioned it might be good to write a layman's version. So here it is.

When you use a word processor like Writely on the web, it potentially uses a lot more electricity than when you use a word processor on your computer.

Three things can increase the effect of this:
  • There is software running on the computers at Google that store the information. This takes dozens or hundreds of computers to store the information for the users. Just the fact that you're involving two computers to do the word processing of one person means you are adding to the electricity used for the task.
  • If the programs running on the computers at Google are inefficient--it is not in the case of Writely, but imagining it was--this adds to the number of computers they need to have on their end to handle all of the users.
  • Lastly, the program you actually see is running through your web browser (Internet Explorer or Firefox). The programming language used to create this experience (JavaScript) is not known to be very efficient compared to the programming languages used to create a desktop application like Microsoft Word or even OpenOffice (those languages are called C, C++ or Java in the case of OpenOffice).
To reiterate an analogy to cars: imagine if you need to transport a small cardboard box and you buy an SUV to do it instead of a Hybrid car. You've spent a lot more on gas than you really need just to transport the cardboard box.

However, it should be said that desktop applications like Microsoft Word are not completely off the hook on this! Those applications are getting more complicated all the time, needlessly so, and wasting electricity in the process. If the upcoming Office 12 takes 1 second more to do a mail merge than the current Office 11, that adds up. I don't really know if mail merge is slower or faster, but imagine the millions of people who are doing mail merges out there. When my computer is just sitting there, Windows Vista takes 20 watts more than Windows XP, because of the fancy new graphics Microsoft has added to Vista. Imagine that across a billion computers and it becomes clear that if Microsoft had made this more efficient instead of spending time on needless features, it could actually have an impact on global electricity use.

All I've been trying to say with this is that computer programmers who allow inefficiencies to stay in place because it's easier, or to make a quick buck, should own up to their responsibility when that inefficiency is pushed out on a wide basis. Like, for example, the internet. This is not morally different than carmakers pushing SUVs. They do it because it makes a quick buck and it's easy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but to mangle your car analogy a bit more in a relevant direction: if you use a hybrid car to move a cardboard box from point A to point B, it uses some energy. But if you use the mail service, they use an 18-wheeler to move a whole bunch of boxes at the same time. This costs you less in terms of money (and society less in terms of total energy expended), but more in terms of time.

Of course though points A and B have to be sufficiently far apart for this to scale.