Promiscuity and Software: The Thirty-one Percent Solution

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There is one big player in the software development world, and her name is Microsoft. Over the years many vendors and startups have attempted to compete against the lumbering giant, and Microsoft has typically resorted to one of two methods for dealing with her rivals. Either she pours near-unlimited money into beating the competition, as Microsoft did with Netscape in the 90’s, or she buys her rival right out. It is the typical build or buy scenario. But with the ALT.NET world, she seems to be taking a third approach.

The premise of the ALT.NET philosophy is that developers who work within the Microsoft .NET domain should still be free to use non-Microsoft sanctioned technologies, and there is even a certain Rome versus the barbarians approach to this, with Microsoft naturally taking the part of the Arian invaders. The best solution to a technical problem it is claimed (and rightly so) need not be one provided by Microsoft, which ultimately is a very small sub-set of the aggregate body of developers in the world. Instead, solutions should be driven by the developer community who know much more about the daily problems encountered by businesses than Microsoft does. Microsoft in turn may or may not provide the best tools to implement these solutions; when she doesn’t, the developer community may come up with their own, such as NHibernate, NUnit, Ajax, Windsor and RhinoMocks (all free, by the way).

What is interesting about each of these tools is that, when they came out, Microsoft didn’t actually have a competing tool for any of these technologies. Instead of competing with Microsoft on her own field, the ALT.NET community began by competing with Microsoft in the places where she had no foothold. Slowly, however, Microsoft came out with competing products for each of these but the last. MSUnit was released about three years ago to compete with NUnit. ASP.NET AJAX (formerly ATLAS, a much cooler name) competes with the various Ajax scripting libraries. ASP.NET MVC competes with the PHP development world. Entity Framework and the Unity Framework were recently released to compete with NHibernate and Windsor, respectively.

Unlike the case with the browser wars of the 90’s, Microsoft’s offerings are not overwhelmingly better. The reception of the Entity Framework (mostly orchestrated by the ALT.NET community itself, it should be admitted) was an extreme case in point, for scores of developers including a few MVP’s (Microsoft’s designation for recognized software community leaders) publicly pilloried the technology in an open letter and petition decrying its shortcomings.

Microsoft, in these cases, is not trying to overwhelm the competition. She does not throw unlimited resources at the problem. Instead, she has been throwing limited resources at each of these domains and, in a sense, has accomplished what the ALT.NET world originally claimed was their goal: to introduce a bit a of competition into the process and allow developers to select the most fitting solution.

Not too long ago I came across an article that suggested to me a less benign strategy on Microsoft’s part, one that involves ideological purity and software promiscuity. The ALT.NET world, one might be tempted to say, has a bit of a religious aspect to it, and the various discussion board flames concerning ALT.NET that pop up every so often have a distinct religious patina to them.

The relationship between ALT.NET-ers to Microsoft is a bit like the relationship of of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to the world. We do, after all, have to live in this world, and we don’t have the ability or the influence at all times to shape it the way we want. Consequently, compromises must be made, and the only question worth asking is to what extent we must compromise. The distinction between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists rests squarely on this matter, with Evangelicals believing that some sort of co-existence can be accomplished, while Fundamentalists believe that the cognitive dissonance between their view of the world and the world’s view of itself are too great to be bridged. For Fundamentalists, the Evangelicals are simply fooling themselves, and worse opening themselves up to temptation without realizing it.

All this being background to Margaret Talbot’s article in the November New Yorker Red Sex Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?  Ms. Talbot raises the question of abstinence only programs which are widely ridiculed for being unsuccessful. 

“Nationwide, according to a 2001 estimate, some two and a half million people have taken a pledge to remain celibate until marriage. Usually, they do so under the auspices of movements such as True Love Waits or the Silver Ring Thing. Sometimes, they make their vows at big rallies featuring Christian pop stars and laser light shows, or at purity balls, where girls in frothy dresses exchange rings with their fathers, who vow to help them remain virgins until the day they marry. More than half of those who take such pledges—which, unlike abstinence-only classes in public schools, are explicitly Christian—end up having sex before marriage, and not usually with their future spouse.”

The programs are not totally unsuccessful.  In general pledgers delay sex eighteen months longer than non-pledgers.  The real indicator of the success of an abstinence only program, however, is how popular they become.  The success of an abstinence only program is ironically inversely proportional to its popularity and ubiquity.

“Bearman and Brückner have also identified a peculiar dilemma: in some schools, if too many teens pledge, the effort basically collapses. Pledgers apparently gather strength from the sense that they are an embattled minority; once their numbers exceed thirty per cent, and proclaimed chastity becomes the norm, that special identity is lost. With such a fragile formula, it’s hard to imagine how educators can ever get it right: once the self-proclaimed virgin clique hits the thirty-one-per-cent mark, suddenly it’s Sodom and Gomorrah.”

The ALT.NET chest of development tools is not widely used, although its proponents are very vocal about the need to use them.  Unit testing, which is a very good practice, has limited actual adherence though many developers will publicly avow its usefulness.  NHibernate, Windsor and related technologies have an even weaker hold on the mind share of the developer community — much less than the thirty percent, I would say — an actuality which belies the volume and vehemence, as well as exposure, of their proponents.

With the thirty-one percent solution, Microsoft does not have to improve on the ALT.NET technologies and methodologies in order to win.  All she has to do is to help the proponents of IOC, Mocking and ORMs to get to that thirty-one percent adoption level.  She can do this by releasing interesting variations of the ALT.NET community tools, thus gentrifying these tools for the wider Microsoft development community.  Even within the ALT.NET world, as in our world, there are more Evangelicals than Fundamentalists, people who are always willing to try something once.

Microsoft’s post-90’s strategy need no longer be build or buy.  She can take this third approach of simply introducing a bit of software promiscuity, a little temptation here, a little skin there, and pretty soon it’s a technical Sodom and Gomorrah.

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