Exploding offers suck. Founders should be able to choose the investor they want to work with, not have to make a decision based on time pressure.I think this is a smart move on YC's part. They are positioning themselves as being founder friendly, further strengthening the desire of good founders to be with them. They then get the best founders and the positive cycle continues. It's also smart for them to be very public about this because they want the perception of YC to extend their reach even ahead of anyone's actual experiences with their policies.
Exploding offers are pretty bad. This can be common even beyond the accelerator stage. VCs can and do provide term sheets with short fuses. One very real reason for this is that the VC does not want to be used as a stalking horse. If a VC is willing to put their neck on the line by making an offer, they don't want that simply to be used to get a higher offer somewhere else. This is a completely fair position.
On the other hand, decisions made by time pressure can backfire. Back when I was finishing up at business school, a major car company that some of my classmates were interviewing with came up with the following strategy. They took eight students from top business schools (two from MIT, two from Stanford, two from Harvard, etc) and brought them all together for interviews on the same day. And the end of the day they announced to the group that they were happy with everyone and that they had two job offers, which would be made to everyone. The first two people to accept would get the job. Brilliant idea, right? What a great way to implement competitive tension and ensure that they would be able to fill the positions!
Wrong. Out of disgust (for being put in the position, for feeling like this is how they are valued, for feeling interchangeable with everyone else in the group) NO ONE agreed. It is my understanding that the positions remained vacant for several months.
None of this, of course, addresses the obvious issue of how loyalty will be affected down the road by starting the deal this way.
So, the best approach is to build a strong relationship with someone (as an investor, accelerator, employer, what have you) and make someone WANT to be with you. Be the VC firm of first choice, independent of valuation. Make your new employees loyal and excited before they even sign for your company. Foster a sense of transparency and openness, and that will pay dividends that overcome the stalking-horse problem.