Relearning Lessons

What happens when an old dog moves on to new tricks

Back when few computers had hard disks, most users ran programs off 5.25" DOS disks, so an application and its data needed to fit on one disk. Because users frequently ran out of disk space, programmers designed applications to handle disk full errors. Then hard disks became common, and application developers began to forget about disk full problems. Modern applications use disk space lavishly, and few include provisions for resolving space shortages.

The Mystery of the Disappearing Disk Space
Six months ago, I installed Outlook Express as my primary email client. Like the rest of the Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0 suite, Outlook Express automatically installs to the C drive's Program Files directory without giving you a chance to redirect the installation. You can move the application's files after it installs, but doing so requires Registry changes and probably isn't a task most people want to tackle. Years ago, computer users struggled with applications that a friend of mine calls stupidware-software that could install only from drive A. I haven't encountered any stupidware lately, but software that's obstinate about which drive it installs on is obviously alive and well.

I was irritated that the IE 4.0 suite dumped its roughly 20MB of code onto my C drive without asking my permission. Then, when Outlook Express started for the first time, it asked me which drive I wanted my mailboxes on. I accidentally clicked OK to accept the default drive, C. I couldn't find any way to move mailboxes in the Outlook Express menus. I left the Outlook Express program files and mailboxes on C.

Over the next 6 months, I noticed that space on my hard disk was becoming scarce, but I didn't know which application was consuming the free disk space. My system finally forced me to figure out why disk space was disappearing: When I tried to send a 35MB file to my publisher, the system crashed. When I rebooted, I saw that I had very little free space on C, and Outlook Express would no longer let me attach files to emails because of the space shortage.

The Culprit
I investigated whether Outlook Express files were taking up much hard disk space. I had always told Outlook Express to discard the files I marked as deleted, so I knew a large Deleted Items mailbox wasn't the problem. However, I hadn't considered that Outlook Express keeps copies of all outgoing messages and their attachments in the Sent Items folder. When I checked the mailbox folder, I found that Sent Items had grown to 150MB over 6 months.

So, I opened the Sent Items folder, selected all the folder's items, and attempted to delete them. Outlook Express greeted me with an error message stating that it had run out of space. Outlook Express wanted to delete the sent files by copying them to the Deleted Items folder. To delete 150MB of messages, I needed 150MB of free disk space, and I had only about 20MB free.

I exited Outlook Express and deleted the Sent Items mailbox file, then restarted Outlook Express. This deletion solved the space problem.

I fiddled around in the Registry until I figured out how to move my mailbox files to a larger disk, and I don't think I'll have the problem again. But I found myself wondering how a less adventurous person would solve Outlook Express' space problem.

My Outlook Express experience prompted me to recall the old space-conscious DOS programs and to want modern applications that were more aware of disk space. Why didn't Microsoft program Outlook Express to monitor disk space and, when space gets low, move mailboxes to a more spacious drive? Better yet, why doesn't all application documentation include a short technical note that contains expected file sizes and tips for minimizing the application's use of disk space?

My cameras tell me how close up their lenses focus, and my films tell me where reciprocity falls off. Including these notes costs manufacturers little, and the information is valuable to photographers. If software vendors included similar information in product documentation or began again to address space problems in their code, they could prevent many disk-space headaches.

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