The paradox of choice: best of breed or cheapest of the bunch
Roy Osherove has a few tweets about commercial tools vs. free ones in the .NET space. I’ll let his tweets serve as the background story for this post:
The backdrop is that Roy seems to be frustrated with the lack of adoption of what he considers to be better tools if there are free tools that deal with the same problem even if they are inferior to the commercial tools. The example that he uses is Final Builder vs. NAnt/Rake.
As someone who is writing both commercial and free tools, I am obviously very interested in both sides of the argument. I am going to accept, for the purpose of the argument, that the commercial tool X does more than the free tool Y who deals with the same problem. Now, let us see what the motivations are for picking either one of those.
With a free tool, you can (usually) download it and start playing around with it immediately. With commercial products, you need to pay (usually after the trail is over), which means that in most companies, you need to justify yourself to someone, get approval, and generally deal with things that you would rather not do. In other words, the barrier for entry is significantly higher for commercial products. I actually did the math a while ago, and the conclusion was that good commercial products usually pay for themselves in a short amount of time.
But, when you have a free tool in the same space, the question becomes more complex. Roy seems to think that if the commercial product does more than the free one, you should prefer it. My approach is slightly different. I think that if the commercial product solves a pain point or remove friction that you encounter with the free product, you should get it.
Let us go back to Final Builder vs. NAnt. Let us say that it is going to take me 2 hours to setup a build using Final Builder and 8 hours to setup the same build using NAnt. It seems obvious that Final Builder is the better choice, right? But if I have to spend 4 hours to justify buying Final Builder, the numbers are drastically different. And that is a conservative estimate.
Worse, let us say that I am an open minded guy that have used NAnt in the past. I know that it would take ~8 hours to setup the build using NAnt, and I am pretty sure that I can find a better tool to do the work. However, doing a proper evaluation of all the build tools out there is going to take three weeks. Can I really justify that to my client?
As the author of a commercial product, it is my duty to make sure that people are aware that I am going to fix their pain points. If I have a product that is significantly better than a free product, but isn’t significantly better at reducing pain, I am not going to succeed. The target in the product design (and later in the product marketing) is to identify and resolve pain points for the user.
Another point that I want to bring up is the importance of professional networks to bring information to us. No one can really keep track on all the things that are going on in the industry, and I have come to rely more & more on the opinions of the people in my social network to evaluate and consider alternatives in areas that aren’t offering acute pain. That allows me to be on top of things and learn what is going on at an “executive brief” level. That allows me to concentrate on the things that are acute to me, knowing the other people running into other problems will explore other areas and bring their results to my attention.