Short Circuit is a quarterly newsletter intended as an antidote to the onslaught of information that characterises both technology and financial markets. Inspired in part by Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock, I hope to use some of the latest news, events and developments as a jumping off point for discussing a broad range of issues that will be vaguely technological and future related. It is designed to be thoughtful but relaxed; as a comfort blanket against the barrage of the outside world; like your first cup of tea in the morning. Try it on your tablet.

London, UK & Las Vegas, US by proxy


As if we hadn’t experienced enough gluttony over the recent festive period, Las Vegas, in the only way it knows how, spent last week serving up another feast in the form of the annual Consumer Electronics Show at its eponymous Convention Center. For most people with a professional affiliation to technology it is a must-attend – even if some journalists have cleverly pointed out that not exhibiting can be even more effective.

I have a huge amount of respect for those that do make the trip. Not only is a week in the City of Sin liable to test the constitution of even the most resolved at this time of year, but the sheer array of stuff (products, exhibits, presentations, lectures, people) is probably tougher on the ticker than a week of meals at Joel Robuchon. It does however, serve as the perfect excuse to write about Barry Schwartz and his staggeringly, life-changingly insightful book  Paradox of Choice.

The premise is simply that contrary to modern doctrine there is a point at which more choice produces worse outcomes.  Choice is a crucial indicator of freedom and self-expression, and therefore welfare. So if as a policy it is the aim to maximise welfare, ergo, more choice means more freedom and more freedom means more welfare. Unfortunately this is not the case; there is some point at which too much choice becomes dissatisfying and, at the extreme, paralysing. (Thanks to the beauty of TED it is possible to watch 19 minutes of highly entertaining video from the author himself explaining this in more detail).

Consider Mr Schwartz’s cornerstone example, buying jeans. Once upon a time there were just jeans, the length of your legs and the circumference of your midriff. Now GAP offers nine ‘cuts’ of jean to fit every shape, size, function and fashion. The problem is that many people are what might be termed “maximisers”, making it necessary to consider all options.  Having done this, even if an objectively good choice is made and the jeans fits better than ever (which is much more likely given the range on offer) satisfaction will have decreased from that choice because it is easy to imagine an even better outcome, expectations are extremely high as a result of all the choice, and the blame for anything below expectations falls squarely at the foot of the decision maker (yours truly).

Citing not just jeans but for example the 175 salad dressings available at his local supermarket Barry describes how marketing people don’t get this.

I cannot agree more. Success has many fathers and the ubiquity of the iPhone is variously attributed to great hardware, great software, great integration (“it just works” and all that), great ecosystem, but an overlooked factor is surely that the decision to purchase one is just so easy and (therefore) pleasant. There is in essence, only one to choose from.

Compare this to any other consumer electronics vendor like Samsung. They offer 134 different phones on their UK website, including 81 types of “Galaxy”. They are supposedly the pretender to Apple’s throne but they need to consider the choice factor element to the success of their Galaxy S line if they are to truly take the crown (it’s the best; consumers choose between that and an iPhone). They will not get there by offering phones with a crème brûlée torch and nose hair trimmers, or either or neither.

There are many more examples of success where the lack of choice is an unheralded factor. Right now I am listening to a Roberts radio. I remember buying it; there were lots of colours to choose from but no variety in any single technical feature. I have never questioned or regretted that decision for a minute. When we were away I bought a jumper just before we left for no apparent reason and I wore it nearly every day. By contrast, I prevaricated over my rucksack for weeks and was still wondering if I should have gone for wheels on the last week of the trip.

And yet the issue can still come full circle. A total lose of freedom and independence tends to lead to rebellion. In what is becoming a hot button issue, the technology monoliths are all today trying recreate the walled gardens of the past. Apple comes the closest to being able to do so because the quality of each of its features is like-for-like competitive, but the Apple Maps débâcle is a timely reminder that no single company can do everything best.

Even today after years of failure telecom operators are hoping to develop services that will tie us to their platform in the hope of becoming a latter day AOL. They are supporting a new OS called Tizen because it allows them more flexibility to develop and provide these services, on the back of the business school 101 idea that to stay relevant you have to avoid the dreaded threat of commoditisation. This is a particular bugbear of mine. Mobile networks look more like critical infrastructure. Sure, price may be a strong factor in deciding from whom to buy but service and reliability are important too. They have two huge factors in their favour – limited competition and universal consumption. Be the cheapest and the best and you will have a cracking business with a guaranteed and transparent return enshrined in the regulatory regime. It is a very different proposition to selling coal. If it weren’t so frustrating it would be comical. It took Vodafone FIVE YEARS to produce an app on the world’s leading mobile OS just to track account values like minutes remaining – and they are the ones who can see before anyone else just how important and widespread the smartphone phenomenon was  becoming!

The key to a happy, healthy life then, as ever, is moderation. Enough choice to exploit our freedom and express our individuality, but not too much to enfeeble and entrap us. A bit like food and drink really. Should fit nicely with the new year regime.

Chris Woodcock is an independent technology analyst and sometime global nomad. Get in touch: chris [at] cedillaresearch [dot] com / @chrisjwoodcock