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Code is gaseous: it keeps expanding

The size of applications keeps growing. In 4 years they have expanded 14 times. Credit: SensorTower

When I started to work, back in 1971 (yes I am a dinosaur, i coded using binary and the support was punched tape) memory was at a premium, the less lines of code you can use the better.  Then, in a short time we started to see dramatic increase in the memory and storage capacity of our computers, from 64kbytes to 128 and then, imagine!, 512kbytes. Yet, in spite of that growth we immediately managed to fill up the space. Out of that came the consideration that software is like gas, it expands till it fills all the available space.

Fast forward to 2017. Apparently, software did not change its gaseous characteristics. It keeps expanding today as it did 45 years ago.

I came to this conclusion as I saw a short article reporting on the increase in space taken by 10 of the most widely used applications on the iPhone.  In May 2013 these ten applications required (as a whole) 164MB of space, by May 2017 they require almost 2GB, a 14 fold increase. The one which increased most, Snapchat, requires today 50 times more space than it required back in 2013! None requires less than 10 times more.

If you take a look a the lines of codes of applications in several sectors you will immediately notice the huge numbers involved. Amazing!

In some cases the reasons are the layering of more and more software and the cost of redesigning from scratch complex programs. You keep adding on to the point that today the lines of code in your latest car model is measured in 100 million, whilst 14 million lines of code are enough for a Boeing 787. The code for that airplane has been redesigned from scratch, the one in your car is a stratification of several versions of software.

A graphic rendering of the growth in memory space used by 10 of the most used apps on the iPhone over the last 4 years with points indicating the points where memory constraints were released. Immediately after a significant growth started. Credit: SensorTower

Of course, one wonders why Facebook or Uber had increased 10 folds in four years. Yes, new functionalities have been added but how can they justify a 10 times increase.

The explanation provided by SensorTower is based on the “possibility” to expand, i.e. the the gaseous characteristic of software I mentioned before: first Apple removed the constraints on app size (they actually moved the max size to 4GB) and secondly iOSX supported bigger size.

However I would like to offer another explanation. The increased use of AI in apps. We do not know how to mimic brain’s intelligence in terms of processes but we have found a way to create intelligence out of massive data analyses. It is this usage of AI that I feel has dramatically increased the size of these (and others) applications. If you look carefully at the graph you’ll notice that the dramatic increase happened around June 2016 and that was the “release” time of the new apps versions. Their design started several months before, end of 2015, and 2015 has been the year where AI has started to percolate in many areas, becoming the leading technology in 2016.

Expect further increase in size in the coming years as more and more AI will be injected in all sort of apps.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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