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The value of restricting choice

The language game

Microsoft’s talking points go something like this (summarized in my words):

If you adopt ODF instead of OOXML then you “restrict choice”.  Why would you want to do that?  You’re in favor of openness and competition, right?  So naturally, you should favor choice.

You can see a hundreds of variations on this theme, in Microsoft press releases, whitepapers,  in press articles and blogged by astroturfers, by searching Google for “ODF restrict choice“.

This argument is quite effective, since it is plausible at first glance, and takes more than 15 seconds to refute.  But the argument in the end fails by taking a very superficial view of “choice”, relying merely on the positive allure of its name, essentially using it as a talisman.  But “choice” is more than just a pretty word.  It means something.  And if we dig a little deeper, at what the value of choice really is, the Microsoft argument falls apart.

So let’s make an attempt to show how can one be in favor of choice, but also be in favor of eliminating choice.  Let’s resolve the paradox.  Personally I think this argument is too long, but maybe it will prompt someone to formulate it in a briefer form.

Choice — the option to act

Choice is the option to act on one more possibilities.  Choice is the freedom to take one path or another.  Choice is the ability to open one door or another.  And what is the value of choice?  It depends on the value of the underlying possibilities.

In some cases, the value of choice can be valued quite precisely.

For example, imagine I have three boxes, one containing nothing, one containing $5 and another containing $10.  If you have no choice, and are given one  box at random, then you will get $5 on average.   And if given the choice of which box to pick, also without knowing the contents, you will also get $5 on average.

Similarly, if each box contained exactly $5 and you could see inside, the value of choice would still be zero.

But if the three boxes contained nothing, $5 and $10 and you could see inside, then the value of having a choice is clear.  You would naturally pick the $10 box.  So having a choice is worth an additional $5.

So we see that for choice to have value, you must have two things:

  1. A way to estimate the value of outcome over another.
  2. A preference for one outcome over another

In some cases this can be done with precision.  In other cases it can only be estimated or modeled. For example, trading stock options is essentially the selling and buying of the right to exercise the choice (option) to buy or sell a security at a given price within a given time period.  The value of this choice can be modeled by sophisticated mathematical models like the Black-Scholes option pricing formula.

Eliminating choice

So going back to the  boxes again.  Now imagine one has $10 in it, and the other has a note in it that requires that you pay me $10.  You can see the contents of each box.  Which one do you choose?  It should be obvious, you pick the one with $10 in it.

But what if I say you are not limited to picking only one box.  You can pick either box, or both boxes if you wish.  You have absolute freedom to choose A, B or A+B.  What do you do?  Of course, you still pick the box with $10 in it.

But doesn’t that eliminate choice?  Yes, of course it did.  But the value of choice was only derived from the value of the underlying outcomes.  By choosing, I’ve derived the full value of having a choice.  Since if one choice is clearly more favorable than others (it “dominates” the others) then the alternatives should be discarded.

Resolving the paradox of the choice

Give the choice of A, B or A+B, each are distinct, mutually exclusive choices.  They are the three boxes with three outcomes.  Each one has a value that could be estimated.  When someone portrays option A+B as preserving choice, they are forgetting that this is a choice that also restricts choice, since it eliminates A or B in their exclusive, pure forms from consideration.  Any choice, even the choice of A+B, restricts choice.   If you choose A+B then you have not chosen A alone or B alone.  You have the value of the outcome A+B, but do not have the possibly greater benefits of picking choice A alone or choice B alone.

Clear?  I think this should be obvious, but I’ve seen these concepts cause much confusion.

It is also important to realize that the combination A+B may have conjoint effects, which may be neutral, synergistic or antagonistic.  In other words the value of A+B is not necessarily the same as the value of A plus the value of B.

In some cases, certainly, the value of the A+B choice is the same as the sum of each individual values. For example, the boxes with money and notes, these are all simply additive, with no conjoint effects.

But in other cases, the value of A+B has synergistic effects.   For example, the choice of diet+exercise is more salubrious that either one chosen in isolation.

And in some cases the value of A+B is less than the value either one in isolation, as anyone who has bought both a cat and a dog knows.  These choices are antagonistic.

So back to the file format debate.  The choice here is between adopting ODF, OOXML, or ODF+OOXML.  These three choice are mutually exclusive.  They are the three boxes,  with three different outcomes.  Each outcome has a value that could be estimated.  But we should not fall into the trap of thinking that an ODF+OOXML decision is preserving choice.  Far from it.  By making that choice, one eliminates the possibility of having only ODF, or of having only OOXML, with the resulting values that those choices would bring.  Choosing both formats eliminates outcomes and restricts choice just has much as choosing only ODF eliminates outcomes.

You cannot avoid eliminating the outcomes you do not choose.  There are benefits that would come from having only a single standard, and there are costs and complications from maintaining multiple standards.  These must all be considered.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • twitter 2010/07/28, 00:57

    The short version: OOXML drags you into another decade of Microsoft incompetence.

    OOXML should be eliminated from consideration because it is a bad choice, a restrictive liability. People who chose OOXML are stuck with Microsoft Office and Windows, worst of class software that are expensive, violate your privacy and perform poorly. People who go with ODF can chose from many better Office suites that work on every OS and many different hardware platforms. That’s because ODF is a real standard that has many functioning implementation. One day, even Microsoft may use it correctly but I would not hold my breath. OOXML will only be considered by the willfully ignorant, the corrupt and those who have exploited them for more than a decade.

  • Nick Fortune 2010/07/28, 04:09

    I think part of the problem is the notion that more choice is always good. And that’s easy to refute:

    Suppose I stick a gun in your face and give you a choice. You can either choose give me all your money, or you can choose to get shot in the face. At this point in time you have two options that you didn’t have before. I’ve given you more choices. Therefore, or so some people would have us believe, I’ve done you a favour.

    So either we accept that holding people up at gunpoint is a good thing, or we need to concede that having more choices is not always a good thing.

  • harrytuttle 2010/07/28, 07:43

    Choice in this context simply should _not refer to the document format itself_, but the choice in programs available to fully read, understand and render the information within the document correct.

    If one can see that ODF is a free format without restrictions or obfuscation, one could assume the _choice of software and programs_ would be much much higher than compared to OOXML, which pretty much is MS Office only…

  • Chris Ward 2010/07/29, 10:04

    You should also mention the value of standards. You could choose to put the letters ‘abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz’ in any order you like; there is one standard order, and all the others are in some sense ‘creative’. We like our dictionaries to be in the standard order.

    There’s also one standard for the kind of electricity that comes through the walls of American homes; 110 volts, 60 Hertz, AC. It was not always so, but it is now, and it doesn’t seem likely that anyone will ever try to come up with another one.

    Of course, what you then go on to do with the letters, and with the electric power that comes through the walls, there’s a huge variety of possibilities. Some have commercial value; some have attribution value.

    “Chris Ward created this, but it’s not actually sellable for money as such”. That’s how the world works, sometimes.

  • Chris Puttick 2010/07/29, 10:43

    How’s this?

    Choices you make take you down routes, which will lead to more choices in the future. You drive down a road and come to a T-junction; left takes you into a walled estate; limited options follow and the road you enter is also the only exit. Turning right takes you towards a crossroads and turns off that take you to a city, to a highway and to another crossroads.

    Choose right and get more choice, choose left and get no choice.

    ODF is the document standard that gives the most choices in the future, OOXML is a dead end.

  • Richard 2010/08/01, 02:55

    > There’s also one standard for the kind of electricity that comes through the walls of American homes; 110 volts, 60 Hertz, AC

    This is good example. People travelling the globe must choose the right voltage as there is a undesired choose 110 volt (OOXML) and 220V (ODF).

    BTW: Americans have always been good in not following standards;, time (12H vs 24 H), metric (kilo meters, miles which resulted in the loss of a satelite), liters and gallons, A4 versus letter, CDMA vs GSM, OOXML (MS is an American Company) vs ODF…..

  • Kevin 2010/08/03, 12:03

    Actually, Richard, I don’t think any of your examples are examples of Americans not being willing to follow standards. Most of your examples are examples of Americans following an older (and perhaps out-of-date) standard.

    The English units predate the metric system. Americans use SI units for scientific uses and English units for everyday life. (And both English and Metric nuts and bolts for cars :-)).

    CDMA vs. GSM is an example of the U.S. not mandating one standard over another. Both are in common use, depending on which carrier you choose. My AT&T GSM Quad-Band phone works in most countries, that’s one of the reasons I chose AT&T.

    OOXML is not an example of the U.S. versus the world. It is an example of one U.S.-based company trying to hold onto its monopoly. When you consider that the entire OOXML fiasco may have been started by one U.S. state (Massachusetts) mandating ODF for some state documents, I don’t think you can make the claim that the U.S. has chosen OOXML as a standard over ODF. Microsoft may exert more influence over the U.S. government than I would like, but the U.S. government is not alone in that regard.

  • Richard Bruce Baxter 2010/08/07, 09:49

    The point of a standard is to encapsulate the necessary functionality of a process, remove choice in it’s implementation, and thereby improve interoperability.

    Microsoft always talks like this; there is something distinctly Microsoft about it. It doesn’t quite make sense but it sounds friendly.

    If they were really concerned about interoperability, they would a) hire better software engineers to address “backward compatibility issues” (which everyone knows have always existed, even with their proprietary file formats), and b) propose modifications to the existing standard to achieve the “level of functionality” not already present – not create their own “standard” while corrupting the existing standard with a non-standard formula implementation.

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