Faulty Pattern-Matching

Yes, they are trying to confuse you.

Among the valuable tools for making sense of the universe with which humans are endowed is the principle that things which have some things in common often have other things in common. This principle helps us predict the properties of things, situations, and people, and gives us a sense that we have some chance of understanding this big reality we live in.

Unfortunately, the computer industry, or at least its marketing departments, seem to make considerable efforts to subvert this principle at every juncture.

Let’s look, for example, at Microsoft’s operating systems and office suite circa 1998. PC users generally were using Windows 95, or in some cases Windows 98. The Microsoft office suite available for purchase was Office 97. Sitting next to Office 97 on the shelf was Office 98. But they couldn’t buy that. That was the Macintosh office suite; essentially a port of Office 97.

Now, referring back to the introduction for this column, we recall that I sold computers and software about that time. I can speak from experience that people didn’t get it.

People were concerned that since they had Windows 95, Office 97 might not run on their machine. They were concerned that since they had Windows 98 it might not run on their machine. They wanted to buy Office 98, because it was obviously more current than Office 97. They were angry that Mac users got a more advanced version of the office suite.

And nobody believed us when we tried to explain things to them. We had a lot of returns of Office 98 before we realized that we had to make sure that everyone we sold it to actually had a Mac. We spent hours explaining to people that it was really very simple–PC people use Office 97, Mac people use Office 98. It doesn’t matter what OS version you have. And they still left with an expression that said that they thought we were lying to them.

Because it just didn’t make sense. First of all, common sense dictates that two products with 98 in the title should work together. Second of all, common sense and general computing practice dictates that a higher version number should denote a more advanced program. Third of all, common sense would dictate that two products with the same name but a different number should be mutually compatible. But none of these things are true. Because the only thing that the product names of that time period tell you is what year it came out, and that doesn’t really tell you anything right off the bat.

Us professionals could keep it straight because we had to learn all the silly details that make the numbering make sense–that is, that Windows 95 would run Office 97 because programs are written to run with existing operating systems, that Windows 98 would run Office 97 because Windows 98 wasn’t that radical an OS change and making it not backwards compatible would have been really dumb, and that Office 98 was the same thing as Office 97 but released a year later for the Mac because that’s just the fate of Mac users. You couldn’t deduce any of this. It’s the same reason that adults couldn’t figure out Pokemon: there’s 150 different critters, and their names are almost completely meaningless. On the face of it, it’s an unending sea of confusingly alike primary-colored foo. If you have a vested interest in figuring out what they can do–say, because you want to play the card game or the video game or some such–you can carve out some brain-space to learn what the difference actually is, and soon you too will be able to tell them apart.

No matter what venue you encounter faulty pattern-matching in, however, it’s irritating at first (well, in Pokemon the challenge of learning about all the critters is part of the experience, but buying an office suite isn’t supposed to be an adventure that keeps you occupied until the next toy-buying season). It seems like there is no logic to the scheme, or that you’re just too dumb to see it. Which would seem to mean that either you’re an idiot, or you’re being forced to work with tools designed by idiots.

Unfortunately, I have no ready solution for this one, other than to urge you to invest the time to figure out the logic behind the senselessness. Or at least to believe the professionals when they tell you something that contradicts common sense.