AT LARGE: To the letter

And when I am not in Rome, I do not do as the Romans do. It's a matter of policy. Since I spend the vast majority of my time outside Rome, you will rarely have seen me behaving as a Roman might. Others are beginning to share this view: the movie industry, long a bastion of Roman numeration on copyright notices, has gradually begun to use the Hindu-Arabic numerals that have become standard over the past millennium or so.

(Quite likely this is because MM doesn't look particularly impressive or "epic" on the end of a film. It's kind of hard to top MCMLXXXVIII, and things have been on a downward slope since then.

I'm mystified as to why the computer industry, which is largely based in areas that are not Rome, continues to use Roman numerals. And, moreover, why it uses them in such a reckless manner. Take, for example, Apple. Ever since it announced that its bright shiny new operating system would be called "Mac OS X", there has been little other than confusion.

Is it "Mac OS Ten"? Is it "Mac OS X"? What about revisions? Will there be "Mac OS X.V, service pack ii"? In a conversation I had recently about the thing, my interlocutor stumbled over the mix of ancient and modern, and ended up calling it "Mac OS Sex". This, I don't need to tell you, conjured up images in my mind. Wild, debauched images (not PG-rated) of what goes on at Apple developer conferences. Of course, I never get invited to those parties.

I asked an Apple person why the Roman, and he told me the company "wanted to make it clear that this is a different product". The Mac I'm writing this on runs Mac OS 8.6. There's another one around here somewhere running Mac OS 9. This subtle difference in nomenclature is quite sufficient to inform me that they are two different products, thanks. If it's not enough for some customers, perhaps you could put a red sticker on the box.

Now, I'm not saying we should all jump on the Hindu-Arabic bandwagon just because it's the most popular show going. I'm a trend-bucker if ever there was one - witness the two Macs. I'm just saying that switching from one to the other, with nary a breath in between, can create a bit of confusion in the minds of one's customers.

The culprit I'm thinking of here is Palm Computing. Its entry-level handheld model is the "IIIc", pronounced, presumably, "three-C". So why is it not called "3c"? Is there not the danger that some could misinterpret the label, and go into stores asking for an "I-I-I-C"? Or, even worse, an "I-I-I-100"? Wouldn't they look and feel silly then? And while you're all rolling around on the floor laughing at the error, they're off to find a more sympathetic store.

And, failing to learn lessons from that debacle, Palm is about to introduce the "m100". Now, I ask you, does it make sense to have one unit called "c" and one unit called "100" on the shelves together? Does this not invite customers to call it the "1000-C", or the "1000-100" or the "M-C"? Is this not courting disaster?

And I ask you, how will you keep a straight face when the customers come in? (Incidentally, I do know Palm V owners who habitually refer to their "Palm-vee", so this isn't entirely a fatuous argument).

The problem is that all the good letters of the alphabet are taken by Roman numerals. "X" is a funky, modern sort of letter. So is "V". I'm kind of partial to "M" for obvious reasons - it implies stability, dignity, strength, good hair. You couldn't introduce a Palm IIIk and expect it to sell well. No-one takes "K" seriously.

I'm not sure what the solution is. Perhaps a branding campaign to make people like letters such as "R" and "J" and "L", and associate them with modern technology. It worked for "E".

Matthew JC. Powell has several "W"s in his name, and wonders what it could mean. Explain it to mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au

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