Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Somehow 128 - 27 - is a magic number for Apple. The original Mac in 1984 came with 128KB of RAM. An the iPhone in 2007 came with 128MB of RAM as well.

Back in 1984 the Mac was a big step forward but it soon became clear that 128KB of RAM weren’t quite enough and posed more of a limit to what people could do than the slow processor did. Hearing what people have to say about the iPhone and noticing the rough edges I am seeing myself, one wonders whether its main problems - ’challenges’, if you wish - aren’t quite similar: The device may not be super-fast but it copes reasonably well with most tasks, speed wise.

Where developers do hit limits, though, is the memory consumption of their applications. As even the stripped down iPhone version of OS X appears to be quite bloated, only a a quarter or so of those 128MB seems to remain for applications. And with modern programming technologies, in combination with lazy modern programmers, these remaining megabytes fill up quickly.

One thing that strikes me is that in the ‘good old’ days of the ‘Classic’ Mac OS memory management was a big topic. An application got a certain amount of RAM on launch and had to live with that. Due to that, programmers were keenly aware of their memory requirements and managed them carefully. After switching to the Unixy Mac OS X my impression is that people lost that care. You have open ended virtual memory and applications are programmed to just go on and on without an exit strategy for situations in which their memory needs can not be fulfilled (with Apple’s own libraries setting an example for that as you’ll crash right in their methods once you run out of address space). That does make things easier and frees programmers’ minds to think about other stuff. But once your system was thrashed by a rogue process which gobbled up all the memory it could get, you start wondering whether memory usage shouldn’t be more controlled.

One wonders whether the experience on the iPhone wouldn’t have been better with twice the amount of RAM. There’d me more breathing room and less crashes. Multitasking could become feasible that way. And that may be a solution for many of the iPhone’s shortcomings.

Obviously people at Apple will have had these - and many more - thoughts on the issue already. Would more memory have not been feasible technically or financially? Did they just want an easy way to have an ‘improved’ model in the future. Or, one could ask oneself, do certain people at Apple enjoy making developers’ lives harder just to make clear whose house the party takes place in?

I think they kicked Jobs out of Apple when they sold Mac with 512KB of RAM. Let’s see how things continue with the iPhone…

February 19, 2009, 9:26

Tagged as apple, iphone, mac, ram.

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