I’ve recently been working in the .NET environment, and have had occasion to go wandering the web looking for various tools and libraries to speed up the development effort. One thing that has become very clear is that there is a very fundamental difference in mindset between the .NET and Java communities when it comes to tools. In general, its possible to find open source utilities and libraries for Java to accomplish most common tasks, whereas in .NET it seems far more likely that a similar search will arrive at the website of a commercial company with a product to sell.
It may simply be that there are more open source tools for the Java platform because it has been around longer. But it may also be the case that the Windows development community is larger, and more used to paying for their tools. There appears to be a second-tier of companies who make their living primarily by making and selling tools to the developer community. It seems to me that this tier can only really be profitable if there are a sufficient number of organisations selling software to the end-user community, and that those organisations feel there is a cost-saving to be had from buying tools and libraries rather than building their own.
Assuming those two speculations are true, what does this mean for open source in the .NET world?
My take is this: any company that sells products to developers to make those developers’ projects more cost effective is probably under constant pressure to perform. If their product isn’t powerful enough, their customers can simply roll their own (which is usually not the case for end-users), and if the price is too high, the ‘buy vs build’ pendulum will swing against them.
Open source projects traditionally fall into this developer-tools space, and as such, probably cause a lot of concern. How do you compete on price when something is free? On the other hand, you have a community that is used to buying its tools, and the tools are probably of pretty high quality, due to the competitive pressures I alluded to earlier. My gut feeling is that there is a higher barrier to entry for open source in the .NET world than the Java world.
Ultimately it comes down to the cost-benefit. If organisations developing end-user software can do so more cheaply by buying their tools, they will do so. The more complex and innovative the library, the less likely it is that an open source competitor will emerge. Commodity libraries that are closer to the buy-vs-build inflection point may well be supplanted by free alternatives, but this is simply market forces in action, and probably no bad thing.