That time a customer reported an error in the map used by Flight Simulator


Microsoft Flight Simulator prided itself on its accuracy and realism. One of the things it has to get right are maps, because knowing where you are is kind of important when you're flying a plane. (There are clubs whose members form a virtual airline, clocking hours flying virtual airplanes on virtual routes around the globe.)

A call came in to product support to report that one of the maps in the game was incorrect. Specifically, the border between two European countries was incorrectly placed. This was a legitimate possibility, because this story took place at a time when the map of Europe was in a state of flux after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The product support engineer took notes on the error for the Flight Simulator team to look at. Microsoft has an internal department responsible for maps and geography, and that team investigated the issue and concluded that the map in the Flight Simulator game was correct.

This conclusion was reported back to the customer, but the story doesn't end there. The customer was dissatisfied with the resolution of the matter and decided to do the obvious thing when this happens to you: The customer sent email to Bill Gates.

Bill Gates actually reads his email, and he forwarded the message to the head of the Flight Simulator team with the note, "Please look into this."

Now, if you're the head of the Flight Simulator project, you have plenty of things to deal with already, and one of the last things you want to get is a piece of email from Bill Gates asking you to look into something. (Related story.)

The Flight Simulator team went back to the geographers and asked them to re-check their information. The geographers re-checked their maps, looked at the internationally-recognized border between the two countries, searched for any information that would suggest that there was an active border dispute between the two countries, but they couldn't find anything that would indicate that the map included in Flight Simulator was incorrect.

The product team called the customer back to get some more information. "As far as we can tell, the map in Flight Simulator respects the current internationally-recognized border. It is in agreement with the XYZ Treaty and is consistent with United Nations map number 31415. Can you tell us what specifically is wrong with the map?"

The customer replied, "Finally, somebody is going to do something about fixing the map. In Flight Simulator, the border between the two countries goes from blah to blah to blah, but it's supposed to go from blah to blah to blah."

"Hm, that's not what our information says. What map are you using?"

The customer answered, "I'm using the world map on my shower curtain."

I don't know exactly what the product team said in response to that. I hope they said, "You might want to upgrade your shower curtain."

Comments (41)

  1. pc says:

    Clearly, the recommended course of action should be for the customer to send a copy of the shower curtain map to the UN and the countries involved, get them all to agree on the new border, and then Microsoft would update the Flight Simulator map accordingly.

    1. Carlos says:

      Clearly this is the best course of action

      1. John Doe says:

        Finally.

  2. Brian_EE says:

    I wonder how realistic the operations of the virtual airlines are. In the game, do you get to have local police come on your plane and beat up your passengers and drag them off before you take off on your flight route?

    1. Kirby FC says:

      If not, that’s a feature which should be added, for the sake of realism.

      1. Alex Cohn says:

        The updated Flight Simulator will boast new drag’n’drop user interface.

        1. AlexShalimov says:

          Or, to be more precise, “user drag’n’drop interface.”

          1. If your plane has too much drag, it will drop.

        2. alegr1 says:

          This comment wins internets

  3. Pierre B. says:

    This feels like it should be part of a trivia game show: “Troll or Urban Legend”.

    I can’t fanthom someone bothering to email Bill Gates over a map on his shower curtain. (Plus I have a hard time imagining such a map being so precise to be able to pin-point a border between two landmarks.)

    1. Apparently you haven’t met many simmers. Some of them are a little bit special. They’ll complain that people use an aircraft for a route the airline doesn’t actually use or that people are flying to an airport that doesn’t exist any more (Kai Tak is still a popular place to fly in to).

      1. Dave says:

        Hey, simmers can be useful too. A while back someone dug up an original DVD recording of the Wright Brothers that was apparently genuine, until a simmer pointed out that the flaperon shown in the DVD recording wasn’t invented until several years later, so the DVD obviously couldn’t be from 1904 but was from the 1920s at the earliest.

        1. Luuk Holleman says:

          > so the DVD obviously couldn’t be from 1904 but was from the 1920s at the earliest.

          I think any DVD would be at least from 90’s

          1. Dave says:

            They were definitely genuine, just like these: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XqwQXqUbX8 Roman home videos.

        2. Martin says:

          I’d question the claim that someone had a DVD from the early 20th century.

        3. DWalker07 says:

          Those are some VERY old DVD’s. I’m surprised they lasted that long….

          1. Mike F says:

            Impressive considering that DVDs were first released around 1995.

    2. Karellen says:

      I was thinking it should be submitted to “Not Always Right”[0]

      Also, considering how old MS Flight Simulator is, this may have happened in the late ’80s or early ’90s before email got really popular, and the user might have been a) newly-enamoured with the idea of email, b) pleased to have found that that billg even had a public email address, c) relatively short on other people to email, and d) bored, so why not give it a try – what did they have to lose?

      I’m now wondering how the shower-curtain-map dates based on xkcd 1688![1]

      [0] https://notalwaysright.com/
      [1] http://www.xkcd.com/1688/

    3. SimonRev says:

      Some people are just nuts. Almost twenty ago I worked for a company that had developed a custom VB6-esque language to program the hardware they sold. They marketed the language as an “object based programming language”. Once day, one of the support people approached me with a two page rant they had received from a customer who was incensed that we dared call that language a programming language when it was clearly a scripting language and demanded that we change all of our marketing and literature to fit his perception.

  4. Kevin says:

    > Bill Gates actually reads his email

    I remember reading someone’s anti-Microsoft rant many years ago. The crux of their argument seemed to be that, since you couldn’t just send complaints directly to bugs@microsoft.com, the whole company was doomed to obsolescence. I guess they didn’t realize they could just use billg@ instead.

  5. ChuckOp says:

    My 8 year old, Grayson, has a map of the world as his bathroom shower curtain. His knowledge of world geography has increased tremendously and he’s challenged me on the capitals of South America and won.

    1. Alex Cohn says:

      I guess when he grows up, you will need to refresh your data on Scandinavian captials

        1. McBucket says:

          If I explained that this means that “when he grows up” actually means “when he gets taller”, then that would probably ruin the joke.

          Oh, wait.

  6. ChuckOp says:

    Regarding emails to Bill: For a while in second half of the 1990’s, I used to get forwarded emails and physical letters send to Bill Gates that dealt with issues related to technology and disability (that was my area of responsibility at the company at the time). Some of the letters were downright heartbreaking, others were pleas to improve accessibility issues in our products – which we were working on already. So I can attest that Bill himself was reading those emails. Sometimes he would just ask me to reply on his behalf, or other times he’d ask questions about the topic – presumably to craft a reply himself.

  7. jpk says:

    I usually archive & star (bookmark) articles that have an amazingly interesting or peculiar technical aspects. With this one, I’ll gladly make an exception.

  8. Gene Hamilton says:

    Is this a repeat?

    1. I thought for sure I told this story before, but I couldn’t find it in the archives. Maybe you can find it.

      1. Doug says:

        (If this gets first-time-commenter delayed, someone will probably beat me to it.)

        Raymond told the story in a Hanselminutes interview. https://www.cloudcomputingexpo.com/node/382447/print

        And Bill Gates told it in Business @ the Speed of Thought. [The Google Books link is ridiculously long.]

        …doug

        1. Right, I’ve told this story in other places, but never on this web site I don’t think.

      2. Joshua says:

        Well when I fired up Flight Sim 4 the map was pathetically wrong. I found this out when I tried to fly to Greenland. It didn’t exist.

  9. Doug says:

    United Nations map number 31415? Well there’s your problem right there. That map is known to suffer from truncation and rounding errors.

    1. Karellen says:

      I hear that its successor, UN map 31416, tracks reality much more closely – even if it does overcompensate for the errors of 31415 a tiny bit.

  10. hamed says:

    Customer is always right, Bill should send a new shower curtain to the customer.

  11. Ninju Bohra says:

    At the end of the first paragraph you should say…
    (There are clubs whose members form a virtual airline, clocking hours flying virtual airplanes on real routes around a virtual globe.)

  12. FSdev says:

    I work for a company that makes addons for Flight Simulator X. (yes, the sim still lives on 11 years after its release!) All of us here had a big laugh tonight when this post got passed around the team. We’ve see this kind of stuff more frequently than we’d like to admit in our own support queue over the years. Thanks for the laughs!

  13. DWalker07 says:

    The United Nations map number 31415 should tell us where Pi is…..

  14. Josh says:

    I worked at a tech support shop a while back that did support for Flight Simulator. It was pretty surprising how often we got calls from real pilots, trying to explain to us techs on why a 747 doesn’t act correctly for whatever reason, or, things along those lines.

  15. Emre Erkan says:

    Hi Raymond,

    May I translate this story to Turkish and publish on my blog with a backlink to this page and with appropriate credits?

  16. CSRedRat says:

    How match it cost in $ and time?)

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