December 16, 2007

In or on? Experience the power of splash screens

Here's the setup screen for a recent Java update that kept pestering me until I let it run:

A couple of things about the text struck me as odd, starting with the preposition choice:

Java is found everywhere -- on mobile phones, desktop computers, Blu-ray Disc players, set top boxes, and even in your car.

Is Java "on" a disc player? As I waited for the upgrade to finish, it seemed to me that it should be in it, and probably in a mobile phone as well. At least the anonymous copywriter agrees with my intuition that Java is in a car rather than on it.

Google gives 217,000 hits for "Java is on", vs. 368,000 for "Java is in". And the top hit for "Java is in" is the download page at, which uses in rather than on for the cell phone case::

Java is in cell phones, automobiles, the Mars Rover, and many other places. By downloading it to your computer, you will be able to experience the power of Java.

What's the difference between on and in here? I'm not sure, but it seems to me that one issue is control. If you can install something or remove it, at your pleasure, then it's on the device in question. But if the manufacturer just put it there, in firmware or whatever, and there's nothing you can do about it one way or the other, then it's in there. That may be why it seems strange to me to say that Java is on a Blu-ray Disc player, since we don't have any choice in the matter.

The odd on was not the only interesting choice in (on?) this little pop-up screen.

By installing Java, you will be able to experience the power of Java.

What is it about this phrase that seems at once so strange and so familiar?

One piece of it is the lame advertiser's collocation "experience the power of", which has 690,000 Google hits this morning, most of them about things other than Java. On (in?) the first two pages of web-search results, we're invited to experience the power of Automator and Apple Remote Desktop 3, PC gaming, grace, suggestion, Adobe Acrobat, conversion, winning justice, visual learning, AllyCAD, MIDT, rhetorical eloquence, digital entertainment, GIS, the Pause, Information on Demand Solutions, Sedation Dentistry, Native Transactions, Instant Rapport, Resonance Repatterning & Deeksha, and my creator.

Is "experience the power of Java" meant ironically? It doesn't seem that way. Apparently advertising copywriters really think that this phrase impresses people in a positive way, and their clients believe them.

The other curious thing about this phrase is the repetition of the proper noun Java. I guess that advertising copywriters also believe that more brand-name repetitions are better, no matter what. In this particular case, the result reminds me of the now-defunct Fafblog, where ironic invocations of the ad-copy repetition trick were a characteristic shtick ("Fafblog! the whole worlds only source for Fafblog").

[Update -- Victor Steinbok suggests a different rationale for preposition choice in such cases:

This is just a personal opinion, so I don't know how much it would reflect the general sentiment. I find the reasoning for the on/in distinction that you cite somewhat unsatisfying.

If you can install something or remove it, at your pleasure, then it's on the device in question. But if the manufacturer just put it there, in firmware or whatever, and there's nothing you can do about it one way or the other, then it's in there. So it's strange to say that Java is on a Blu-ray Disc player, since we don't have any choice in the matter.

When I first read the sentence that prompted the inquiry, I had no problem with it. To me, the analogy of "on mobile phone" would be "on your computer". There are things that are on the computer and other things that are in the computer, but I don't quite see how the installation options make the distinction.

Instead, I thought of something else. If you think of Java as software (yes, I know, it's a "software environment"), then you'd be hard-pressed to refer to it as being in something, even if it's a mobile phone or a DVD player. "Built-in software support" is not the same creature--and the phrase actually points to the distinction that I want to make. The "built-in" bit refers not to software but the technology. So we don't say that I have a particular technology on my computer (I am sure some geeks would be tempted, but, I suspect, they would be outnumbered). For example, did Intel advertise their preceding generation of Centrino chips as the Centrino technology being in or on the computer? My memory may be faulty--and the examples may be sparse--but, I believe, it was the former. Certainly, when it comes to hardware, it's going to be "in".

So here's the $64,000 question--is BlueTooth technology on your computer, in your computer, or does your computer simply come with BlueTooth? Next, the same question but as applied to mobile phones instead of computers. The issue is not trivial since BlueTooth has both a software and a hardware component and you can install or deinstall both (even though, lately, most models come with the built-in option). So this might be a good test for both your explanation and mine.

I don't have a great deal of confidence in my rationalization for this little corner of the distribution of extended meanings of English spatial prepositions. To some extent it seem simply arbitrary. Thus an engine is "in" a car, while tires are "on" it, which more or less goes along with my rationalization -- but guys I've known for whom an engine swap was not a big deal would still talk about putting a small-block 350 "in" -- not "on" -- a vehicle. My intuition says that a carburetor is "on" an engine, while spark plugs are "in" it, even though it's easier to change plugs than to change a carb. Presumably this has something to do with the fact that the carburetor is bolted onto the outside of the engine, while the spark plugs are partly inserted into it -- but this sort of explanation seems more like a post-hoc rationalization than a predictive theory.

There's an extensive and interesting literature on this question, or at least on the factors that influence the choice of spatial prepositions in extended meanings, both in English and across other languages. Unfortunately I don't know it well enough to cite the pieces that bear the description of software and firmware.]

[Magnus Bakken:

My intuition about whether software is "in" or "on" a device has always been that the device is referenced as its disk (or disc) by synecdoche. Since we generally refer to software as being "on" a disk, we also refer to software as being "on" a device when the data is stored permanently on its disk.

And we refer to things being "in" memory -- computer as well as human -- although this is a temporary condition that we can control to some extent, contrary to my rationalization for "in". Maybe what's different about cell phones and disc players is that their storage media are likely to be devices that information is "in" rather than "on".]

[Dozens of people have pointed out to me that if you think of a cell phone as a "platform", as many engineers do, then it's obvious by metaphorical extension that software runs "on" it. Many other have brought up the "layers" metaphor (as in the OSI protocol stack), though they are divided between those who think that software runs "in" a layer and those (the majority) who think that it run "on" a layer. And some have pointed out that not only do programming languages and environments, operating systems, etc., run "in" or "on" various devices, but applications and other programs also run "in" (or sometimes "on") the languages, environments and systems, like Swift's infinite regression of fleas.]

[Update 12/17/2007 -- Rubert Goodwins at ZDNet has posted some fascinating counts:

"Running on DOS": 879
"Running in DOS": 9530
"Running under DOS": 25600
"Running with DOS":5290

"Running on Windows":472000
"Running in Windows":289000
"Running under Windows":263000
"Running with Windows":27300

"Running on Vista":82200
"Running in Vista":11500
"Running under Vista":20300
"Running with Vista":33100

"Running on Linux":329000
"Running in Linux":122000
"Running under Linux":77100
"Running with Linux":916

His comment:

So, 'on' has become firm favourite after a very slow start, 'under' is far more popular with Vista than Linux (which reflects an interesting point about the philosophies of the two platforms), yet 'with' seems to almost unknown with the open source OS - perhaps reflecting the fact that 'with' doesn't reflect any architectural aspect of the relationship between software and its host OS and thus is distrusted by the more technical.

"Running under..." -- ah, those were the days, when an OS wasn't a "platform" or an "environment", but just a sort of overseer that read your bits into memory and waited around for them to get finished.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 16, 2007 08:15 AM