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A Different Set of Numbers

by Glen Emerson Morris
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From the public relations standpoint, the lesson to be learned from Intel's Pentium disaster is that in the Age of the Internet, small numbers count, particularly if they're unhappy customers.

In the matter of a few weeks, a small unorganized group of consumers, literally scattered all over the world, took on one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, and won a product recall likely to be the most expensive in the history of the industry. With no funding, they trumped every move Intel made to limit damage, literally overwhelming Intel's talent and resources at every stage.

It began when a Pentium user noticed that, occasionally, he seemed to get wrong answers to math questions. Intel assured him he was the only person having this problem, and they couldn't help. He posted the problem on a Compuserve user group, word spread on the Internet, and he quickly found others who had similar problems. They compared notes, and confronted Intel. Meanwhile, thousands read these conversations and also began questioning Intel, and the press noticed.

Intel's PR department assured everyone the Pentium was safe, a few Pentium owners wrote programs to demonstrate the problem, and posted them on the Internet. Thousands of Pentium owners downloaded the programs, ran them on their computers, and saw for themselves that the Pentium chip had a serious problem. The press noticed.

Intel's PR department countered that the errors were too small and infrequent to be significant. Unfortunately for Intel, in the last few years an entire school of math has developed around the ability of extremely small numbers to affect the outcome of extremely big calculations. Known as the Chaos Theory, this new science has increased the accuracy of computer simulated weather systems, ecosystems, and economies, just to name a few.

The flaw in the Pentium chip results in wrong answers occasionally when doing long division. When the problem occurs, the answer is only off by an extremely small amount, just the digits several places to the right of the decimal place. However, as the Chaos Theory explains, no variation is insignificant, no matter how small. Pentium owners had the math to prove Intel's argument didn't add up, and let the Internet, and the press, know it. Intel surrendered soon after.

At each stage of the game, Intel's PR department was a full step behind news on the Internet. Every defense Intel made could be proven false by a quick logon to the right newsgroups, as many consumers and members of the press found out.

Intel, it turns out, knew about the problem as early as July, but estimated the number of consumers who noticed would stay below the threshold of consumer and press awareness. Based on past experience, it seemed a safe bet.

Intel is the first company to find that the threshold has changed, drastically and permanently, thanks to the Internet. A few years ago the Intel disaster simply couldn't have happened; the problems were too infrequent, and the consumers too isolated. Soon it will be commonplace, and not just with computer manufacturers. Imagine a consumer database for every product and service for sale in the US, it's only a matter of time.

In the Age of the Internet the isolated, and individual, consumer is being replaced with a "collective consumer" whose resources and expertise exceed any corporation's. This "collective consumer" is much more difficult to deal with, as Intel found out. Companies will have to assume that any experience a consumer has with their product or service can, and will, be shared with every other consumer, and nearly immediately.

Companies can't control what's said about them on the Internet, but they can listen, even to small numbers of consumers. As the Chaos Theory proved, small numbers count.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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