Has Anyone Noticed How Bloated The Internet Has Become?

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I was on a cruise recently, and trying to read anything online was painful since thousands shared my internet connection at sea. Reading a relatively lightweight site like Google News generally gave me time to get an ice cream cone before the page appeared.

Has everyone abandoned building minimal apps or at least optimizing assets? People in the U.S. assume everyone has unlimited bandwidth, but internet speeds and bandwidth are still limited in many places, even in parts of this country. In my German cousin's town, the fastest internet is still ASDL. In much of Africa, if you have the internet at all, it's doubtful that many websites can even be accessed.

My first "online" experience was in 1973-1974 in a programming class in a public high school (itself unusual for the time) where we used a Teletype machine connected to a timeshare computer somewhere at 110 Baud. A decade later, my manager and I had accounts on a local newspaper bulletin board that could be accessed with a 2400 Baud modem. We also had email addresses there, but the only people we could email were each other, and we sat in the same office.

In 1998 I wrote the USPS's Postmaster app, using Webobjects/Enterprise Objects. It had to run in IE 2.0, as the Post Office had paid for a license! The app had a single image and no CSS; if it had any Javascript, it probably was very little, as IE 2.0 was extremely buggy. The slowest thing about it was accessing the Post Office's database, which was poorly optimized.

In 2005 I wrote my first single-page application in Javascript using XMLHttpRequest in an internal app; my customers were amazed at how fast it was to use since it could be as interactive as a desktop app. The Architecture team (of which I was a member) yelled at me for buying an unapproved technology; they were only somewhat mollified when I said it was just Javascript running in IE 6. It was a fun app to write before any real Javascript frameworks were available.

Fast-forward to my cruise, and all I could see were loaders, spinners, or websites that I had given up on ever seeing. Even Google News, when I wanted to see a different section than the front page, was sluggish, waiting on the hamburger menu to appear so I could switch. Reading an article was mostly pointless as regular websites took too long to appear.

Recently Citibank revamped the UI of their website, and trying to log in resulted in an error where it claimed my version of Safari was too old to be supported despite my using the latest version on the latest macOS on Apple's fastest computer. After some back and forth with the CEO response unit (most public companies have them if you email the CEO), they finally admitted it was a bug, which was fixed two months later. While waiting, I looked at their Javascript to see if I could figure it out but gave up after a couple of hours, as the main Javascript file was 100,000 lines long in addition to a host of other files. I can't imagine why a Bank website has a 100,000-line Javascript file and the code looked like something that had grown randomly over two decades. I felt sorry for the poor folks who have worked on this beast.

Sometimes I look at websites in developer tools in Safari or Chrome to see how they are built. Often it's mind-boggling how many individual files are required to show a single page. MacRumors, for example, downloaded 431 files comprising 5.8MB of content. I've seen some sites that exceeded 1000 files. You don't notice it as much on a fast internet connection, but that's nuts.

Hacker News was readable on the ship. Cnn used to have a lite website, just a list of their articles; no ads, no images, nothing fancy. Naturally, they recently removed it. The idea of small and simple seems much rarer than when bandwidth was limited. But many parts of the world cannot connect to this bloated internet.

Is anything going to change here? Of course not; optimizing assets and download speed seems to be at the bottom of anyone's list of requirements. The overwhelming prevalence of ads and video mean no one cares how long anything takes to appear. Lean websites have not entirely disappeared, but it is no longer important given the assumption of virtually infinite speed and bandwidth.  

At one point, Google's website tools would tell you how slow your website was to download and seemed to imply that Search would penalize slow websites, but clearly, that is no longer important.

Some cruise ships and lines are trying to speed up onboard internet; the one I was on was not one of them. Maybe speeds will improve everywhere over time, but I expect websites to go beyond what they are doing now, so perhaps it will still overwhelm anyone not entirely up to speed.

Like many things, you only appreciate what you have when you don't have it for a while. Being on the cruise ship reminded me of what being online was like 50 years ago in high school!