As you’ve probably gleaned from the title, my column this week talks about the new challenger to Steam. Spoiler: It’s Discord. I don’t have much to add on the topic of Digital Platforms, but below are a bunch of tangential thoughts that weren’t big enough to make it into a column of their own.
In the article I mention that Discord is much faster than Steam. I wanted to give some sort of relative measure to help convey the difference. I was hoping for something along the lines of “Discord launches X times faster” or “Steam takes an extra X seconds to start up”. I didn’t need it to be scientifically accurate, but I was hoping for an anecdote-level tidbit of information. I tried, but I couldn’t get results that could be turned into a number.
Discord is easily faster than Steam, but answering “how much faster?” turned out to be basically impossible. I launched Steam and it took something like 25 seconds. Then I launched Discord and it launched in 8. Then I tried again and got completely different numbers. Sometimes Discord was marginally faster and sometimes it was significantly faster, but the numbers were all over the place.
I guess there are just too many levels of caching to make for a useful test. Both programs do that thing where you “close” the application but instead of terminating it goes and hides in the system tray. So you need to close them twice if you want them gone for good. Even at that, there’s no way to be sure they’re 100% gone from memory. Sure, I don’t see any processes called “Discord” or “Steam” running under task manager, but I’m pretty sure developers can name a process whatever they like. Maybe there’s a innocent-looking process called “Load Manager” running in the background, and maybe that keeps the motor running for an application so it can pretend to launch quickly.
These sorts of shenanigans go all the way back to the days of Windows 95. A program will launch itself at boot time, but hide as a background process until you “start” it. Then it becomes visible by creating a window. This makes the program feel fast and responsive, but it does so at the cost of adding friction to the overall performance of the machine. Having one program do it isn’t a big deal, but once four or five programs insert themselves into the boot process you wind up with a sluggish machine that takes forever to start.
I strongly believe that programs should have to obtain special permission at install time if they want to launch when Windows starts. As it stands, it’s an easy system to abuse. It would really help if Windows would let me know, “Hey boss, this guy is trying to add its overhead to your boot time. Is that cool with you?” For programs I use every day, the extra boot cost is no big deal. If I use the program once a month, then I’m having a slower boot every single day just so I can save myself a couple of seconds once a month.
(All of this has become more or less moot over the last few years when I stopped shutting down my machine every day. But still, that’s no reason to let badly-made software live in memory when it’s not earning its keep.)
The way it works now, I install a new program and then a few days later I notice it’s hanging out in the system tray. So then I have to go in and fiddle with the settings to tell it to knock it off.
It used to be that after a major update Steam would “forget” that I don’t want it to launch at startup. I think they’ve stopped pulling that particular trick.
Discord is now fighting a war on two fronts. They’re fighting Skype for space in the chat / VOIP space, and they’re fighting Steam in the digital distribution space. I don’t know how Discord will do as a storefront, but I really hope they’re kicking the shit out of Skype. When it comes to slow programs clogging up your computer with hassle and deceit, Skype is one of the worst offenders. It’s actually really hard to get the bastard to terminate. The last time I used it, you had to tell it to quit, then select yes on the confirmation dialog, then chase it into the system tray, tell it to quit again, then say yes to another confirmation dialog. And even then I think it still left little unexplained bullshit processes in the task list. Eventually I realized that it was easier to kill the whole thing with Task Manager than to have it exit properly. The icing on the cake is that Skype is a slow pig of a process.
I realize that it’s better for all of us if we have a plurality of platforms competing for our business, but at some point it’s time for natural selection to have its way with the losers.
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