The Paradox of Choice in the F/OSS World

by chromatic

My friend Dave just built a machine to run CentOS. Last night he lamented that he didn't like the video player. I cringed, "Is it well-known free software video player? I've not had much luck dealing with the developers and I recommend another well-known free software video player."

Another friend, Jim, snickered. "This is what I hate about Linux. There's just too much choice."

I rolled my eyes. Today I realized why that's a silly argument (sorry, Jim--but you don't use Notepad.exe for text editing).


Daniel Berger
2007-09-28 14:57:02
"...but I can’t accept that you’ve suddenly drawn a line in the sand where the existence of multiple options is just too daunting."

Then you don't understand people very well, or why Linux will never, ever supplant Windows or OS X on the desktop in the large. That is, unless there's a "Microsoft Linux" that comes out at some point. :) Look, I'm not saying it's rational. I'm just telling you how it is.

"What makes software different from brands of toothpaste, types of cereal, potential significant others, places to live, brands of socks, or anything else with multiple sources?"

Except for potential significant others, none of those things requires anything resembling an intellectual investment, technical skill, or any sort of time commitment. On the contrary, our parents bought these things for us when we were kids, so we probably didn't have much choice in the matter. By the time we're off buying them on our own, we already know the products we like.

As for "significant others", some people _are_ paralyzed by the daunting number of options. Didn't you see Wedding Crashers? :-P

2007-09-28 15:21:06
@Daniel, I agree to some extent, but spending $500 - $3000 on a notebook PC doesn't seem to me purely brand loyalty. Maybe I'm different from everyone else. (I did put in an exception for the most dedicated Apple customers though; I've met a few.)
2007-09-28 16:07:41
Actually, the main reason that I chose a Mac over a linux machine when I was tired of the Windows command prompt was that most everything had been reasonably well thought out with the Mac OS. I like the choice with F/OSS Software. However, when having so many choices gets in the way of getting things done, to me it just makes it easier to have a company like Apple just sort out some decent defaults. Also, sometimes it just seems all of the choices for a given task with F/OSS just seem to lack polish or don't do exactly what I need it to do. Those are the main reasons I don't just switch over to a completely F/OSS desktop. I know I should contribute more and complain less, but those are my thoughts on the issue of choice.
2007-09-28 18:29:12
Choice is great for power users and adminstrators...but while average users tell you they like choice too, things tend to run a little more smoothly when the choices are set and there are one or two apps for a function, provided that the included software is quality software.

I would argue that on the Mac, one of the things that people like about it is not only the ease of use, but the simplicity of the experience...and that includes the limited choices set for Apple users, where they have one app per function per machine, and those apps are simple and elegant.

A power user can always go, "Ya know, I don't like iTunes. I'm getting something elese. I don't like iWork either, so I'll buy MS Office or download NeoOffice".

A new user or casual user just wants to turn the machine on and do his thing. He just wants things to be simple, and to work out of the box. You don't get that with most new PC's, as they're loaded with all kinds of third party crap. A new HP or Emachines will have something like 7 or 8 different media players installed on it. People hate that. Similarly, if you install one of the friendly Linux distros and pick the full install, some of them will put 4 gigs of crap on your machine.

2007-09-28 18:31:54
Well chromatic, there you have it. Two candidates already for 'starving to death from too many cereal choices.'

Though Jeremy does have a good point about decent defaults. I'm not all that crazy about the Ubuntu family- with all of the good things they're doing, their biggest omission is quality control. They ship way too many bugs and ignore practically all bug reports. But one of the things they do very well is customize both KDE and Gnome sensibly, ship with a rational set of default applications, and organize the system menu sanely. I wish more distributions did this.

2007-09-28 21:52:25
After thinking about it a little more, I actually *do* use quite a bit of open source software on the server and try to contribute where I can. I also use some open source software on the desktop. What I was trying to communicate was that for the majority of everyday things, it's kind of nice to have it well thought out. It's like a nice restaurant where you don't have to choose every little detail. You don't have to choose the color scheme of the room you sit in or the exact content of your salad. The thought has gone into all of that. I think open source software is great and use it quite a bit, but I also think that doing it yourself all of the time - choosing the curtains and the type of crouton isn't *that* important to be able to do and it can sometimes even detract from the dinner. That and I think it's a personality thing on my part. I hope you understand where I'm coming from though...
Matthew Sporleder
2007-09-29 00:09:05
You could at least mention Barry Schwartz, the author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less".
2007-09-29 12:37:06
Perhaps the rebuttal that you are searching for is Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom. His hypothesis is that freedom scares people.

2007-09-29 15:37:07
Sorry, I've already patented the ideas in this post. I've beaten this line of reasoning to death so much on my site, I've even done a parody of it way back here. Doesn't work.

It doesn't work because "Choice is bad." is the kind of thing you only say if the world's biggest monopoly hires you to write. Logic is a waste of time, here, because the counter argument doesn't originate from logic. And brainwashing works on consumer cows, so eventually there will be just that one brand of cereal.

And everywhere, all of the users will be chirping "It's soooooo easy to use!"

2007-09-30 16:38:25
Daniel Berger has a point about a Microsoft branded version would bring success to a Linux based OS take up. But that is because of branding. There was some work recently that showed children rated food from a McDonald's bad (big margin) as tasting better than the other plates of food even though all plates had the same food on them.

People get (placebo?) comfort from familiar things like Windows versus the strange and new.

2007-09-30 16:40:10
Ooops meant "McDonald's bag"
James Shore
2007-09-30 20:03:58
I think you've misquoted me. My argument wasn't that there was too much choice, my argument that there were too many BAD choices, and there's often no easy way to distinguish between the good options and the ones that will suck away your soul.
2007-09-30 20:12:11
@James (er... Jim),

Isn't that the same thing? I don't see the difference.
2007-09-30 21:32:03
This the way to go man. Soon we'll see every single PC being customized with the help of Linux or open source softwares.
James Shore
2007-09-30 23:46:40

The difference is how I value my time. If in operating system "A" I can print, use multiple monitors, hibernate, use USB keychain drives, watch Flash videos, watch DVDs, etc etc with no effort on my part, then it is superior to operating system "B" in which I must go filter through dozens of half-finished pieces of software that consume hours of my time in configuration and incompatibilities.

Maybe "A"'s best DVD tool is inferior to "B"'s best DVD tool--it doesn't matter to me, because I won't spend the time required to find and install B's tool. It's just not worth it--watching DVDs isn't what I bought my computer FOR. (Neither is printing, USB drives, fonts, etc. I just expect those things to work, silently and without getting in my way.) I get no pleasure from configuring operating systems--it's a chore on par with cleaning the bathroom. I choose not to do it.

(PS. I completely understand that some people LOVE configuring operating systems and selecting software. More power to them. However, the pleasure they get from the job leads them to believe that silly things like "50 half-baked choices + 3 good choices is better than 3 good choices" and "./configure; make; make install" are good for everyone.)

2007-10-01 04:32:28
I am not on either side in this but does the general population really *want* to make the choices about applications that Linux offers?

Software is not like toothpaste or cereal. Even the lowest denominator shopper knows where to find those in a supermarket. The general population doesn't want to spend hours of their time figuring out what mp3 player is the best, where to get it and how to install it.

That is why Windows and OSX "works" better for the general population. Linux is still for the geeky.

Kevin Ollivier
2007-10-01 14:57:40
I second James' comments. While I support the free software movement, in the end my primary needs are productivity and ease of use, and the more time I have to spend evaluating software to use, the less time I'm spending actually being productive with that OS/software. On OS X, a really great selection of software tools comes with the machine by default, and it was a real time-saver when switching to Mac. Did I later move away from some of the defaults? Yes, but years later I still use most of the default programs that come with the machine.
2007-10-01 19:06:59
Choice is great if that's what you want. The ultimate in choice for a computer user would be to code the entire operating system by yourself and all the applications. No one seems to want that much choice.

Most people just want something that works so that they can start working. I understand that sentiment. It took me 4 years of testing various Linux (and a couple of BSD) distributions before I finally said, "Screw it, I'll use Ubuntu because it's good enough and it seems to be the most popular right now."

For a possible answer to the whole "How could choice be bad?" issue, you should check out this article from Scientific American, titled "The Tyranny of Choice".

2007-10-01 19:17:29
Use Mandriva Linux.........simple, no choices just one go and try it......Mom and Dad
Sid Boyce
2007-10-02 05:53:34
It's an indoctrination, conditioning and habit forming thing. Some years ago a colleague (A Solaris and z/OS expert) quipped "install Linux and you get a thousand window managers", I replied that if Windows had many choices and Linux only had one, the converse statement would be made. I've often deployed the same argument as made here with reference to the number of choices people happily enjoy and make on a regular basis, but when it comes to choosing software, rigor-mortis type thinking kicks in.
Then comes the complaints about names of programs, seen even in the pages of journals; I ask the question as to how intuitive is Excel, Outlook or PowerPoint to a newcomer to computing, even long time Windows users would guess that PowerPoint is where they plug in their computer before switching it on.
Sid Boyce
2007-10-02 05:59:58
I may add one of my adages, "People who are confused are confused people, lacking in depth perception".
2007-10-02 07:43:34
I think most here are forgetting that no-one forces you to choose. If you install almost any distro, you get sane defaults. But, if you don't like those defaults, then you have a choice. You have already decided you don't like what is provided therefore you are already a step above the average monkey users that use whatever they are handed.

The fact that you have choices, all of them free, each equally easy to install and use, well, that is a wonderful thing to have.

Guy Mac
2007-10-03 10:38:24
Good argument! People seem to draw the line at hardware choices and expect every piece of software including the OS to be exactly what they were looking for.
2007-10-03 11:10:21
I believe the biggest wall to an average user is the time sink involved in the process of loading, learning, trying, failing and repeat to the next program. Most people just do not have this free time, or patience to find and work thru 10 programs so they can do a task that should only take 15 minutes. I want a program that will do what it says it will do, when I want it to do it, the first time, rather then finding 9 programs that don't.
Kurt Cagle
2007-10-04 15:22:14
I do not remember the reference, but not that long ago I read a book on software design that used the aircraft cockpit model. Imagine if you will that as you are entering onto a commercial airliner a stewardess stops you at the door and says you have two alternatives. You can choose to go to the left and enter into the cockpit filled with the various gauges and dials, where after a quick course you will be allowed to pilot the plane, or you can go to the right and take your seat.

Most people, given the alternatives, will choose to go to the right without even thinking about it - they are not interested in learning how to fly, they are only interested in reaching their destination in relative comfort and safety.

Most programmers, on the other hand, will almost instinctively gravitate towards the left, because they like the ability to improve their skills, like the complexity management involved, and are generally much more inclined than the average to want to take control of their own destinies (part of the reason I suspect that programmers also tend to be either libertarians or civil libertarians).

As a software developer and architect, I have a penchant for flexible code. As a consultant, however, I also have to recognize that most of my clients could care less about flexibility, especially if it comes at the expense of forcing them into a mode where they have to deal with more potential choices.

For many people, choice implies that a decision must be made, and the possibility of failure from making the wrong decision can be one of the most terrifying things that they face, even if the cost of that failure ($5 for a box of cereal and a cup of milk) is fairly minimal.

When I talk to people about open software. I do not stress the number of projects in any given software category. Instead, I determine their needs and give them a recommendation of which choice which would be best. They come to me because they know that I'm reasonably knowledgeable in this space, but what they want from me is not that I give them the choices but rather that I make the decisions (and hence become blameable if I'm wrong) so that they do not have to.

Microsoft and Apple both understand this, and so do the good people behind Ubuntu. Personally, I'm not that fond of Ubuntu because it doesn't have the degree of choices that I'd prefer, but I'm obviously a programmer. It took me quite some time to realize how odd that viewpoint really is.

2007-10-08 08:50:31
IMHO, most people would probably never try a *NEW* cereal unless the advertisements convinced them that it was similar to something they already knew they liked (from their childhood? - maybe). Look at car commercials - it's an obvious method there. "This car is as good as that one or better than another one" is all you hear. Familiarity is comfortable. The average person will choose the familiar over the superior, because they don't KNOW that it is superior. It's far easier to stick to the old adage "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush", or, in the case of software choices, even dozens "in the bush".

The ultimate in choice is to be able to choose not to choose. If the first thing handed to you works for you, then where is the advantage of investing time and energy into changing. Another old adage says "If it isn't broke, don't fix it." I know a lot of people that look at life just that way.

Having said all that, I have to admit that I am a chronic chooser. I guess my life's story would be "if it isn't broke, break it, so you can fix it up a little better than it was before." I just can't stop switching things up, in the constant pursuit of pushing the limits of what I can accomplish. That's one of the primary reasons I switched to Linux from Windows. I want to find the limits of my computer hardware capabilities, and push them out. I want to make my computer do something it CAN'T. Computers themselves would have never existed if nobody ever pushed the limits. More choices mean more chances to do just that. I love it. But, IMHO, most people probably don't. They just want to be able to do what 'everybody else' is doing. They don't want to be the pilot, they just want a smooth ride.

2007-10-16 18:55:24
Au contraire, chromatic -- if you choose the wrong piece of Free software for just about anything important, you're out way more than the price of a box of cereal. The cost of choosing, installing, configuring, deploying, and maintaining software -- even just for one user -- is huge, if your time is worth even a nominal amount.