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    Separating fact from fiction in tech stat news

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business in Vancouver January 19 - 25, 2010 issue #1056

    High Tech Office column

    Too often tech news stories present what are probably accurate statistics with headlines that imply more than the numbers can justify.

    Two recent examples:

    •A December 20 Slashdot headline: “Firefox 3.5 Now the Most Popular Browser Worldwide.” Multiple tech media outlets picked up on a graph published by StatCounter Global Statistics. It showed that Mozilla’s Firefox version 3.5 had the most users of any web browser version, followed by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) version 7.

    The implication: more people are using Firefox than Internet Explorer.

    The reality: the reported graph broke up browser use by versions. For Firefox, version 2, version 3.0 and version 3.5; for IE, versions 6, 7 and 8. The most-used version of Firefox, the new 3.5 release, with 21.93% user share for the week December 14-20, barely surpassed the top-scoring version of Internet Explorer (IE 7) with 21.2% use for that week.

    The online graph is interactive. Change it to show browsers rather than browser versions and a different picture appears. Combining all versions, Internet Explorer accounted for 55.4% of all users for that week; Firefox came in second with 32.12%. A strong showing for Firefox, a product that isn’t pre-installed in either Windows or Mac OS X, but a very different result than what a quick read of the headline might suggest.

    More playing around with the interactive graph produces other interesting data. In Europe, for instance, while IE still leads, the gap is much reduced: IE 44.8% versus Firefox 40.86%, while Asian users give IE a much stronger 64.68% to 26.31% lead. North America sits in the middle with results not much different from the world overall.

    Looking at the individual browser version data is interesting, however. The old, insecure Internet Explorer 6 is the most-used browser version in Asia, while its use has dropped dramatically in Europe and North America. Perhaps this is a result of higher Asian use of pirated copies of Windows XP, making it harder to update to newer browser versions. And while last-generation IE 7 is the most popular version of that browser worldwide, the latest version of Firefox is its most-used version.

    The reason? Mozilla’s Firefox, by default, checks for updates every time it’s opened up. Internet Explorer is updated as part of the overall Windows Update process. The result seems to be that Firefox users are much more likely to be running the current (and most secure) version of their browser.

    •A December 22 headline: “Facebook ‘sex chats’ blamed for one in five divorces,” according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail. The implication: Facebook use leads to divorce. And with Canada having the world’s highest rate of Facebook use, should we be worried?

    The reality: what was reported was not a formal research study or poll, but rather a lawyer looking through his firm’s files and claiming that some 20% of the firm’s recent divorce petitions mentioned the popular social network, most often complaining of “inappropriate sexual chats.”

    Does that make Facebook use any different from any other way for wandering partners to get into trouble? I doubt it. Think mobile phones or text messages. Or Internet chat groups. Are Facebook users “flirtier” than users of other social networks or are there just more of them?

    If partners are looking outside their relationships, they’ll find a way to do it. If they’re already using Facebook they may use that, just as they would any other social activity. But having your partner sign up for a Facebook account doesn’t increase the likelihood that divorce is on the horizon. Not even in the U.K. Headlines are designed to draw readers. As with 140-character Twitter comments, you may have to read more to get the whole story. • Favicon

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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