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:
- A way to estimate the value of outcome over another.
- 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.
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.