Choice and Customers

For those of you who were on vacation last week, welcome back! I ran a series of stories last week looking at places around the house where there are multiple "standard" formats for things and what the impact of them is. To recap, I looked at:

  • Choice and Light Bulbs, in which I noted that choice that serves the customer involves having as few different connectors as possible and lots of choice of light bulbs in that format.
  • Choice and Flash Memory, in which I observed that I wish I didn't have to keep buying memory cards for my different gadgets just because the format in use varied, and how some formats seem designed to actually reduce customer choice.
  • Choice and Power Supplies, in which I looked at the power supplies all my gadgets come with and observed there were so many different, vendor-serving choices in play there that I am swamped with power adaptors, but how a solution from an unexpected direction - USB - may be the answer.

Lessons Learned

Spending this time looking round the house for examples of multiple standards has been useful for me. It got me to tidy a load of stuff that had been sprawling across the study, yes. But it also led me to some conclusions about the value of having a choice of standards.
  1. There are plenty of examples of a choice of "standards" in our lives (usually validated in some way by a vendor body), but I have yet to find one that actually leads to a benefit to the customer. In the cases I have found, it arises from:
    • Vendors trying to create customer lock-in, like Sony and the Memory Stick;
    • Subsequent versions of a prior format being developed, like the Memory Stick Pro;
    • Vendors trying to reduce their costs, like those choosing to only offer 110v wall wart power supplies;
    • Vendors trying to create an after-market, like those selecting custom power plugs in their gadgets so you have to buy their in-vehicle adaptor;
    • Vendors operating in a market that is fundamentally divided, like those choosing between SBC and SES sockets for their bulbs.
  2. When standards do occur that help the customer, it may be that the fastest path is to avoid involving the vendors directly. Using USB as a power connector standard was not part of the intent of the consortium that defined USB (who were competing with Firewire, leading to an undesirable, vendor-focused choice of standards).
  3. No vendor will willingly surrender the ability to create customer lock-in or a taxed after-market. Even in the case of USB as a 5v power standard, it is still taking legislation in Asia to stop vendors being anti-social.

In other words, I have yet to see a case where a choice of standards in a single area delivers benefit to the customer. I can see all the benefits it's bringing to the vendors in the cases above, but it's also causing them unnecessary costs. But customers? No. I remain unconvinced that a choice of standards for a given application does anything for them.


But customers? No. I remain unconvinced that a choice of standards for a given application does anything for them.

I mostly agree, but choice does have some intrinsic value. I.e., what do we do if we only have one standard that sucks?

Further what do we do when the market chooses a standard that sucks, and it becomes our only (real) choice?

At some point, somebody has to choose the standard, so we need choice in there someplace. Kind of a chicken-n-egg problem, I guess.

Posted by Sean on July 09, 2007 at 09:28 AM PDT #

@ Sean: That's why we have standards bodies like ISO, so that - at least in theory - we can develop a single good, vendor-neutral standard and update it as required.

Posted by Simon Jessop on July 10, 2007 at 04:42 AM PDT #

. . . and even though Betamax was meant to be technologically superior the public voted with their wallets to choose VHS since standardization was what the public wanted . . .

Posted by Justin Brooks on July 10, 2007 at 05:24 AM PDT #

Usually I'd rather have a standard that sucks (e.g. VHS) than more than one (vis a vis VHS and Beta).

Posted by Adam Peterson on July 10, 2007 at 05:28 AM PDT #

Re VHS vs Betamax - AFAIR Betamax was basically a proprietary standard created by Sony with onerous licencing terms, whereas VHS was a 'good enough' standard with very liberal terms, hence the proliferation of 'implementations' ie lots of competing products using the VHS standard, which drove down costs, to the ultimate benefit of consumers (as opposed to Sony). C.f. ODF vs OOXML. Discuss.

Posted by Phillip Brown on July 10, 2007 at 10:26 AM PDT #

There are plenty of standards which have helped both industry and consumers. Unfortunately, the best examples have nothing to do with software. For example, the Whitworth standards for threaded fasteners were established early in the nineteenth century, giving us interchangeable nuts and bolts from multiple sources. Quality improved, costs went down, maintainability went up. The success of this type of hardware standard is based on the relative difficulty of "embrace, extend,...." We will know that the software business is mature when similar standards have lasted two hiundred years!

Posted by Sean on July 10, 2007 at 10:13 PM PDT #

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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