March 31, 2010

The ninety-percent user myth…

Filed under: — admin @ 5:06 pm

It occurred to me while reading about Sony’s recent decision to remove Linux support from the PS3 with a firmware update (version 3.21) that the overwhelmingly negative response comes from a few groups of people, only one of which seems well reasoned:

1. People who blame George Hotz for rooting the PS3 via the Other OS feature.
2. People who blame Sony for throwing the baby out with the bathwater (i.e. eliminating an entire feature instead of closing a security hole).
3. People who say “well, 99% of people don’t use that feature, so who cares?
4. Optimists who say “dude, it’s happening on April first!”

I love that the optimists for thinking that a company like Sony would pull such a joke, especially such an unfunny one. My complaint in this case is with the third group, but the first group should also lose speaking privileges for 24 hours while they think about how stupid it is to blame a hacker for the knee-jerk over-reaction of a corporation. The risk of compromise of a system is part of the formula one should consider when designing/implementing/cost-estimating a system.

No doubt some people at Sony made the same sort of majority consideration when deciding to pull this feature, just as they did when deciding to pull SACD support, PS2 backwards compatibility, card readers, or two additional USB ports from the console lineup. What has rightly incensed so many is the removal of a feature from existing hardware. PS3 purchasers who bought into the platform early will find themselves with fewer features on Friday than on Wednesday because Sony appears to be buying into the myth of the single minority.

Sony has given a simple workaround to those who wish to keep Linux support. Just don’t update your system. The trade-off is that, without the update, the user is unable to access the PSN store or play games online. So the user of Linux on their PS3 is forced to choose between using the system for Linux or using the system as a Playstation. This would be akin to Apple releasing an update that broke Boot Camp support but was required to use networking under OS X beyond Thursday. People would be livid, and rightly so.

This kind of user-hostile behavior is quite commonly justified by the single-minority myth, most commonly stated as some variant of:

90% of users don’t use that feature, so we don’t have to worry about it.

I heard this type of statement far too commonly in my five-and-change years as a programmer at Sony, and this sort of thinking is a plague in the tech industry at large. Apart from 90% of statistics being made up on the spot, this sort of thinking considers a decision in isolation and trots out an overwhelming majority to validate the point. It’s pretty easy thinking to fall into:

i. The overwhelming majority of PS3 systems in the field are not running Linux.
ii. The overwhelming majority of PS3 systems with Linux installed are not being used for gaming (if this isn’t true, it just makes this a dumber call, so go with it).
iii. We’ll make very few users unhappy by removing a feature, and the trade off is worth it.

The problem with this thinking is that we’re all part of different minorities. For any feature, the 10% will be a different group of users/buyers. Each user has a set of features critical to their workflow/playflow, and the removal of any one or a small subset of these features might eliminate their demand for the product. Add up all of those minorities and you have yourself a console in last place in the current generation. SACD playback, PS2 compatibility, card slots, USB ports? Those all cost prospective purchasers, but removal of the option to install a second operating system on a PS3 does something far more dramatic.

Even those unaffected by this feature removal have no reasoned view but to be aware of Sony considering such a feature removal acceptable. This will undoubtedly affect future sales, because purchasers trust that the features they buy in a boxed product will be the features that they have down the road. There’s a long tail effect of violating that trust, and it’s much easier to lose the trust of your users than it is to build it.

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