How Much Is a Dollars Worth of Bits?

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-06-09 Print this article Print

Coffee: Every 8-bit byte costs something to create, and something more when someone has to consider it.

Call me old-fashioned, but a byte used to be worth eight whole bits, and every one of those bits represented a choice: yes or no, present or absent. OK, maybe not actually a matter of good or evil, but nonetheless a value proposition. And the eight bits in a byte, combining to represent 256 distinctly different possibilities? One could build a universe from such wealth. Our respect for the value of data showed in the design of data structures, each like a little Swiss watch with every part of the mechanism there for a reason. One cant help noting the contrast with todays vast warehouses of structure that are too often filled with mostly empty crates, a problem that 64-bit platforms may magnify. In the long run, what could be more important than keeping our data repositories rich in information value, rather than letting the good bits be swamped by distracting redundancy and noise?
I have a real problem, therefore, with the way that valuable bytes are wasted by sloppy software design. Yes, I know that hard disks are cheap, and I know that processors are fast, but wasting bytes means eventually wasting the time of skilled and valuable people. Someone, someday, will have to decide whats not worth keeping anymore.
In the same way that PC makers are now being challenged to help keep their discarded products out of landfills, I wonder what would happen if software developers had to confront the cost of cleaning up the waste that their products spill all over our IT spaces? Better to put the intelligence at the earliest possible point in the process because the cost of eventual cleanup is one that goes up, not down, with time. Perhaps Im taking this too personally, a side effect of being stuck for two nights in a hotel room with terrible phone lines: When was the last time you saw your modem fall back to a 7K-bps connection? It certainly does remind a person of the need to weigh the value against the cost of every byte that has to go from Point A to Point B.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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