Duplication of Efforts Is Not The Problem

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Oren Eini, aka Ayende, writes about his dissatisfaction with Microsoft reproducing the efforts of the OSS community. His post was sparked by the following thread in the ALT.NET mailing list:

Brad: If you’re simply angry because we had the audacity to make our own object factory with DI, then I can’t help you; the fact that P&P did ObjectBuilder does not invalidate any other object factory and/or DI container.

Ayende: No, it doesn’t. But it is a waste of time and effort.

Brad: In all seriousness: why should you care if I waste my time?

Ayende’s response is:

  • I care because it means that people are going to get a product that is a duplication of work already done elsewhere, usually with less maturity and flexibility.
  • I care because people are choosing Microsoft blindly, and that puts MS in a position of considerable responsibility.
  • I care because I see this as continued rejection of the community efforts and hard work.
  • I care because it, frankly, shows contempt to anything except what is coming from Microsoft.
  • I care because it so often ends up causing me grief.
  • I care because it is doing disservice to the community.

As a newly minted employee of Microsoft, it may seem like I am incapable of having a balanced opinion on this, but I am also an OSS developer and was so before I joined, so hopefully I am not so totally unbalanced ;).

I think his sentiment comes from certain specific efforts by Microsoft that, how can I put this delicately, sucked in comparison to the existing open source alternatives.

Two specific implementations come to mind, MS Test and SandCastle.

However, as much I tend to enjoy and agree with much of what Ayende says in his blog, I have to disagree with Ayende on this point that duplication of efforts is the problem.

After all, open source projects are just as guilty of this duplication. Why do we need BlogEngine.NET when there is already Subtext? And why do we need Subtext when there is already DasBlog? Why do we need MbUnit when there is NUnit? For that matter, why do we need Monorail when there is Ruby on Rails or RhinoMocks when there is NMock?

I think Ayende is well suited to answer that question. When he created RhinoMocks, there was already an open source mocking framework out there, NMock. But NMock perhaps didn’t meet Ayende’s need. Or perhaps he thought he could do better. In any case, he went out and duplicated the efforts of NMock, but in many (but maybe not all) ways, made it better. I personally love using RhinoMocks.

The thing is, there is no way for NMock nor RhinoMocks to meet all the needs of all the possible constituencies needs for a mocking framework. Technical superiority isn’t always the deciding factor. Sometimes political realities come into play. For example, whether we like it or not, some companies won’t use open source software. In an environment like that, neither NMock nor RhinoMocks will make any headway, leaving the door open for yet another mocking framework to make a dent.

Projects that seem to duplicate efforts never make perfect copies. They each have a slightly different set of requirements they seek to address. In an evolutionary sense, each duplicate contains mutations. And like evolution, survival of the fittest ensues. Except this isn’t a global winner takes all zero sum game.

What works in one area might not survive in another area. Like the real world, niches form and that which can find a niche in which it is strong will survive in that niche.

I’m reminded of this when I read that the Opera Mini browser beats Apple Safari, Netscape, and Mozilla combined in the Ukraine. Another remindes is how Google built yet another social platform that is really big Brazil.

So again, Duplication Is Not The Problem. Competition is healthy. If anything, the problem is, to stick with the evolution analogy, is that Microsoft because of its sheer might gives its creations quite the head start, to survive when the same product would die had it been released by a smaller company. We’ve seen this before when Microsoft let IE 6 rot on the vine and risks doing the same with IE 7. Fact of the matter is, Microsoft has a lot of influence.

So can we really fault Microsoft for duplicating efforts? Or only for doing a half-assed job of it sometimes? As I wrote before when I asked the question Should Microsoft Really Bundle Open Source Software?, I’d like to see some balance that both recognizes business realities that push Microsoft to duplicating community efforts, but at the same time support the community.

After all, Microsoft can’t let what is out there completely dictate its product strategy, but it also can’t ignore the open source ecosystem which is a boon to the .NET Framework.

Disclaimer: I shouldn’t need to say it, but to be clear, these are my opinions and not necessarily those of my employer.

Tags: Microsoft , Open Source , OSS