The Failed Economics of Devtools and Code Reuse

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Posted by on June 2, 2015

Why do so many people and so many projects use PHP? Why is there so little code reuse, so few high-quality libraries and development tools to build on? There are several reasons, but one that hasn’t received attention is a problem in the economics.

When starting a new project, the creator picks a programming language and a set of software libraries. Consider the case of a developer starting an open source project, and choosing between an inferior tool with low up-front cost, and an overall-superior superior tool with higher up-front cost. The better tool might cost money, or it might just have a learning curve. Which will they choose?

Developers of open source projects hope to attract collaborators in the future. Unfortunately, most of the costs of a development tool or library are borne not by the person who chooses it; they are borne by the future collaborators who they hope will materialize later. While an existing collaborator might agree to learn a new programming language or pay for a new tool, a hypothetical future contributor can’t do that. Attracting volunteers to work on an open source project is very difficult to begin with, so developers are strongly averse to imposing costs on them. The perceived impact of these externalized costs is magnified many times over, so people don’t accept them.

You would think a company building a team to work on a software project wouldn’t have this problem, because it can internalize the future costs: it pays for the software and it pays employees for the time they spend getting up to speed. But there’s another problem. The quality of a software library is hard to judge until you’ve used it in a project; it’s risky to try an unfamiliar library in a big company-funded project with a team. So developers try out new libraries in smaller, less-important projects where they can take risks — and these tend to be open-source projects, where trying new libraries is a low-ranked side-goal.

This results in an equilibrium where people reject tools, not because they themselves are deterred by the up-front cost, but because they expect other people to be deterred by that cost. This means that if you write a better IDE, a good library, a better compiler, or some other piece of superior software, you’ll have a much harder time charging money for it than the direct economic proposition would suggest, and a much harder time getting people to try it and learn how to use it than the direct economic proposition would suggest.

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