Snow Leopard, Binary Prefixes, and Congressional Dereliction of Duty

by on September 4, 2009 · 13 comments

One of the more puzzling changes in Apple’s newly released Mac OS X Snow Leopard operating system is that it now reports file sizes and storage capacity in base 10 units instead of base 2 units.

Until now, operating systems have always displayed file sizes in base 2 units. When measured this way, a gigabyte is 10243 bytes (1,073,741,824 bytes).

But when measured in base 10 units, a gigabyte is taken to mean 109 bytes (1,000,000,000 bytes). It’s not surprising that hard drive manufacturers generally make a practice of slapping a base 10 measurement on the outside of the product box, presumably to make the total number of gigabytes (or terabytes) appear larger.

Apple’s switch to base 10 measurement was obviously an attempt to put an end to consumer confusion. It probably seemed like an easy way to eliminate pesky calls to customer support from users wondering why the 250 GB hard drive on their new MacBook was showing less than 250 GB total capacity when measured from inside the operating system.

In fact, the consumer confusion resulting from the hardware and software industries’ inconsistency of usage has been a problem for years, even resulting in a number of class-action lawsuits.

There have been attempts to deal with the problem. Over a decade ago, the International Electrotechnical Commission created a number of new binary prefixes in IEC 60027-2. Under this system, 10243 is a gibibyte (or GiB). While this might seem like an elegant solution to an engineer or an etymologist, it fails to make things any clearer for most consumers.

There’s no easy solution to the problem, but it’s clear that all this nonsense should have been avoided in the first place.

I blame Congress.

While they have spent their time debating and legislating all manner of things clearly outside the scope of their constitutional authority, they have neglected their simple enumerated obligations. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “…To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures…”

They dropped the ball.

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