Shannon wrote: “Honestly, it never used to be a problem. SI prefixes have always been powers of two for binary quantities (which is only bytes) and powers of ten for decimal quantities.”
I don’t think so. If I’m not mistaken, kilobytes/second has always meant 1000 bytes/second, when referring to modem transfer rates.
This issue is that the use of the kilo/mega/giga prefixes is ambiguous, even if followed by the word “byte”. For anyone who thinks this whole discussion is stupid, then you won’t mind if I borrow $1024 from you (a kilobuck), and eventually pay you back $1000 (a kilobuck)?
I work in software development with some very smart people. If I had a file 5,323,123 bytes in size, and someone asked me “How big is that file?”, I would be forced to answer “about 5.3 megabytes”. You know why? Because, in an informal discussion, they would understand “5.3 megabytes” to mean “about 5,300,000 bytes”. If I had bothered to do the math and answered (more correctly) “about 5.08 megabytes”, pretty much no one would think I meant “about 5.08 * 1024 * 1024 bytes”. Binary calculations may be easy for computers - not so for human beings. We all know that the proper convention for kilo/mega/gigabyte is binary, but in practice, nobody is shy about using those prefixes in the decimal sense. And nobody says “5.3 million bytes”, although you’d think that’d be a reasonably unambiguous alternative.
For those who still say it’s not ambiguous - to the average customer it is, for all practical purposes, if they have to remember/understand that:
- Windows/Linux will report memory/file size in binary units
- Hard drive sizes are specified in decimal units
= DVD sizes are specified in decimal units (a 4.7 GB DVD packed full of data will show up as ~4.38 GB in your favourite OS)
And just try explaining to the average person why this is so. I’ve seen plenty of people asking the following question on various PC/gaming/tech forums:
“I just bought a 250 GB hard drive. How come it only shows up as 232 GB (or whatever) in Windows?”
Among the misleading answers I’ve seen:
“Windows ‘lies’ to you about the disk space”
“The hard drive manufacturer ‘lies’ to you about the drive size”
“250 GB is the ‘unformatted’ capacity. After you format the drive, you only have 232 GB left” (*)
Just because the industry has been doing the wrong thing for decades, doesn’t mean it’s correct or user-friendly to continue doing so.
(*) You may be laughing about how bogus this explanation sounds, but I’ve heard it from professional IT managers. If someone in the industry cannot be bothered to know/understand that GB has 2 meanings, good luck explaining that to the average joe on the street. This is by no means a criticism of them - it is actually an indictment of the tech industry. It’s no wonder that “techies” have a rep for poor communication skills, since we feel the need to redefine well-known prefixes with ambiguous meanings.