Friday, October 27, 2006

Technology Snake Oil Part 10: Check-box Parity

A pervasive bit of Snake Oil that's been around a long time is Checkbox Parity. This is the requirement by software companies to add features (or make features up) so that they can create the matrix on the side of the box, showing how their version stands up against the competition via columns of checkboxes. The importance of this marketing scheme should not be underestimated. There is a famous essay I read in a treeware book a long time ago by someone whose name I can't remember (but I remember that it was someone notable as a writer). The essay discussed the writer's trials and tribulations with the first versions of Microsoft Word. To compete against WordPefect (the huge market leader at the time), the first version of Word for Windows needed Checkbox Parity with outlining. The author discusses trying to get this to work in Word (it was after all listed at a feature of the product) and continually being frustrated. Finally, after numerous calls to technical support, he finally got the admission that the feature flat out doesn't work, they knew it didn't work, but they had to include it as a feature to achieve Checkbox Parity. This is not a minor point: part of the reason that Word came to dominate WordPerfect in the market place depended on them appearing essentially equavalent in the nascent days of Word. More honest companies (like Ami) failed in the Darwinian environment for word processors that existed before Office crushed all competitors.

This Checkbox Parity also drove the intense competition in the early days of Java IDEs. JBuilder, in its heyday, released a new version every 8 months (which was disastrous for those of us who wrote books about it). This worked well for Borland, who had a very agile development team for JBuilder. It was disastrous for Visual Cafe, who wasn't so agile. For many managers (and, unfortunately, many technologists who know better), the dreaded checkbox matrix on the side of the box determines purchase. Forget well designed, elegant functionality. If you can hack together something that you can reasonably compare to an elegant solution, you can achieve Checkbox Parity.

This same Checkbox Parity will be used to bludgeon Ruby in the marketplace until Ruby achieves the same types of functionality that Java and .NET already have. The CCYAO of large companies will reject Ruby because it doesn't achieve Checkbox Parity with older technologies, regardless of its suitability for a particular development project. If you are trying to sell Ruby in the enterprise, you need a strong antidote to Checkbox Parity Snake Oil.

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