Let me feel the fibre of your fabric….

Lately I am to be found more and more at odds with myself, the precise reason for these feelings? nothing! or rather something that costs precisely nothing. I am course talking about open source software and/or freeware, by no means a new thing but for one reason or another it has been placed very firmly on my agenda within the last year or so. Something that costs ‘nothing’ places me personally in very unfamiliar territory.

To best illustrate my problem, for it is certainly my problem, I think it would be best to start with a personal admission; “I don’t like to make-do with anything”. Whenever I purchase a product of any description I like to do my research, normally there will be a spreadsheet involved and through a complicated process of minimum specification, rationalised scope creep, general snobbery, enforced realism all generously topped with blind denial and well practised shinyitis I will arrive at a decision which for me is always the right one. Most importantly, not only will I have bought the item that I needed, my purchase is backed up by a dull ache from my wallet exactly equivalent to the cost of the item (the severity of the ache equating directly to ‘value for money’)

Take purchasing a new car… I start with good intentions and my specifications get laid out

  • “I need a car that is economical”
  • “I need a car that is reliable”
  • “With 5 people in our immediate family still at home we need five seats”
  • “We should pay a nod to the cost of tax and insurance”

The specifications then slowly start to make way for rationalised scope creep….

  • “None of the cars I like are really really economical, maybe I can get one of the less economical ones”
  • “I do like driving, so I would like a nice drivers car!”

before launching into full scale general snobbery…

  • “Well I’m not buying that car, my colleague Tom has one and he’s my anti pattern!”
  • “I couldn’t live without my 3.2 litre straight six/iPod connectivity/phone connectivity/etc/etc”
  • “I want a car that is just sexy!”
  • “OK, It’s either Mercedes, Jaguar or Maserati….. No Fords or Vauxhalls!”

Slowly and surely the price starts to ease up (at which point I WILL change the maximum I’m willing to pay without hesitation!). It is only a very short walk (or drive) from here to disregarding all 5 seaters as boring and samey (the elder daughter is learning to drive anyway…); Four seats will do! make those seats leather as all kids ruin cloth ones and while we’re at it I’m not entirely sure that I could live without heated seats. By now we’re getting into ‘current car’ territory, a dangerous place to be as you will now start to use THIS as a benchmark! Two world class justifications later, a hint of shinyitis and I’m convinced I need a 5 litre petrol luxury marque to move forward. I just hope that there’s no check-boxes for optional extras on this site!!

In short I’m willing to pay for excellence, exclusivity and many other ‘ex’ words (but not an ex-wife which I dont have). With my one good eye on the past to ensure that ‘I’m up on the deal’ I’m nothing short of dangerous! This applies not just to cars, but to everything in life, clothes, services, concerts, Christmas, birthdays, holidays… All of these things leave me with a proportionately dull ache in the back pocket where my padlocked wallet ought to be.

It should come as no surprise then to find that open source is an issue for people like me, how am I to back up my ‘gut feeling’ about quality without the re-assurance of a large hole in my wallet? I really could ‘purchase’ a best of breed piece of software without my bank manager’s knowledge, I’m sure that he’d be a darn sight happier not having to write to me each month explaining that “it’s not my money, it’s his” and that he’d rather like it back.

Luckily I have other weapons at my disposal, 17 years of experience within the Software Industry goes a long way in helping me to be objective about such ‘purchases’ as does the historical perspective (though one must always be careful not to let the past cloud the future). There is a certain amount of validation to be derived from the buzz and excitement generated within your product community and colleagues are great for offering feedback in such cases too. There’s no escaping the fact though that the ultimate validation comes from using these products in anger, it comes from seeing them running wild across the corporate landscape,like some sort of digital crusader, performing jobs you never thought possible for ‘free’.

Free? of course nothing is really for free, you’ve just invested time, effort and trust instead of cold hard cash. For me, more often than not, the results are disappointing though occasionally you do get a real gem (nInject and CCNet springs to mind for which I have to thank Dave Carson my former colleague over at http://onthefencedevelopment.com) When it comes to Open Source I’m getting more open minded, as the giraffe says ‘It probably won’t work out between us…. But I’m willing to give it a go anyway”

Please feel free to share your own open source triumphs and traumas, particularly with regard to software development.