Wednesday, 13 May 2009

On the toss of a coin

It’s strange why things turn out like they do.

A number of years back when I was at university in the 1990s we had an Apple Lab and everyone said that the Apple operating system would dominate the PC market in years to come. It didn’t turn out that way of course as the rival Microsoft Windows operating system became the dominate player with only a handful of graphic design geeks and fashion conscious young women using an Apple PC today. This didn’t happen because the Apple operating system is any worse (in fact, it’s probably better). It just did. Seemingly just by chance.

Strangely enough luck was the reason why Apple didn’t die a slow death: for some unknown reason the company replaced Sony as the dominant supplier of portable music players. So where did Sony go wrong? Everyone had a bloody Walkman back in the 90’s for God’s sake, and it shouldn’t have been a big deal for such a huge company to complete the transformation to digital. But they didn’t. They screwed up and Apple now completely dominates the market for standalone portable music players. Again why did this happen? Because Sony are crap at making music players? Well, that’s obviously not the reason. Again, it can only be explained by one thing. Chance.

Chance. The toss of a coin. Something like this one:

An American Dime.

Now if I told you that the coin has not been tampered with (i.e. it’s not biased) and I have thrown heads in each of my last 99 throws, then what would be the probability that I again throw a head in my next throw?

I asked this question to an intelligent friend who will not be named here, and he paused for a short moment before answering that because the previous throws do not affect subsequent outcomes the answer was a simple 50 percent. Heads or tails.

In fact, this is the answer that almost ANY educated person will give you. But are they right?



Because the last 99 throws do matter. Not for the theory but because it would be impossible for me in the real world to throw the coin 99 times and for me to throw a head every time!

The right conclusion for you to make was that I was lying to you and that if I was to throw the coin again I’d probably lie to you again (if necessary) and tell you it came up heads again (even if it didn’t).

Yep, sometimes “intelligence” just ain’t enough to solve a problem. You only have to ask Sony why they don’t sell many MP3 players do know that…