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By: Marco Canty
Abstract: Sometimes the question isn't, "buy versus build," but buy versus borrow. By Marco Canty.
Sometimes the question isn't, "buy versus build," but buy versus
One of the questions surrounding Delphi components is whether third-party
vendors can survive in the competitive components market, especially when so
many components are available as cheap shareware or even freeware. The question was the topic of a
birds-of-a-feather session at the last Borland conference in Philadelphia. I was
invited to join the panel discussing the issue and the ensuing discussion
offered a wide range of viewpoints.
Delphi's Visual Component Library is the foundation on which all Delphi
applications are built. Some programmers use only the Borland and third-party components (QuickReport, TeeChart, and FastNet) provided in the Delphi box. Others make frequent visits to
Web sites like the Delphi Super page or
Torry's Site to download the most recent
components and to keep track of what's new and interesting. Some programmers prefer
not to rely on the freeware and shareware components, but instead buy packaged
components from various vendors, often choosing the native Delphi components
over the generic OCX ones. Still others take advantage of Delphi's ActiveX
support and use some of the variety of ActiveX controls available in the Visual
Basic add-on market.
But whatever form the component takes, and whether for sale or for free,
third-party VCL components have played a significant role in the success of the Delphi
If you're not part of the Delphi community, you might wonder how Delphi's
components differ from others. The Delphi components market has a few distinctive
Delphi components are easy to write, so there are many available. A lot of components are given away for free to the community from the same people who earlier
used free components produced by others -- a way of "paying forward". What are programmers looking for in Delphi
components? They invariably want them to include the source code, as
it helps them use the components with the next version of Delphi before an
official upgrade to the component is available. They expect the components to be well integrated into the Delphi IDE.
They want something
that resembles, as closely as possible, the approach of the native components provided by Borland.
Delphi components, like others, have been distributed in many ways. There are the
commercial components (often packaged with a manual), which are typically high quality and
provide tech support, free bug fixes, online documentation, and so forth. There
are probably a few dozen vendors of commercial components, most of them small companies
-- with some notable exceptions.
The second level of distribution is covered by a variety of shareware
licenses, from 30-day trial versions, to the IDE-only approach (the component works only
while debugging, but not in a stand-alone application), to the source code
including the component itself. There are also totally free components, including open source projects.
Such a variety of distribution methods is great for the Delphi community, but
sometimes leads to disagreements among proponents of the various models, many of
whom make their living in the components business. These fights have been exacerbated
by accusations of stealing source code and ideas.
Everyone agrees that stealing source code is illegal. But unless you're
copying source code, it can be difficult to define what is illegal and what's
not. More difficult still is determining what's ethical? What if you copy the exact user interface of a Delphi add-on, rewriting the entire source code from scratch? What if you take snippets of code published in a book and use
them as a starting point of your development? What if you look at the capabilities of an existing component, its properties and methods, and write a perfect clone with your own code?
Let's forget about the law for a second. Writing a component is not only writing its source code, but also designing its
API: its interface to the program (properly-designed properties account for half
of the design of a component and most of its success); defining the behavior of its user
interface; and preparing intuitive property and components editors. Sure, no one has exclusive rights to a user interface idea, or to the name of a property. But if all you do
is copy what others have done, your contribution to the community is, at the
very least, questionable.
Also contributing to the components debate is the fact that Delphi programmers live
in many different economic environments; the way they choose to distribute
their components depends on their economic needs.
The Delphi community is as large as the world and encompasses citizens of all ages and economic
situations. US$100 doesn't hold the same value for an American professional programmer
as for an Indian teenager. Wages in some countries are so low that individuals have built impressive class libraries,
spending hundreds of hours of work, just to give away their libraries to showcase their skills.
Others have created impressive programs and sell them for a tenth of the price of a professional tool,
sometimes even providing better and more responsive technical support. Time and
money don't have the same meaning for equally knowledgeable people of the global
Delphi community. Have you ever wondered why some of the most popular component collection
Web sites are created in eastern Europe?
The Delphi community needs to remember that vendors and writers of free components
all play roles in the community. If we want Delphi to penetrate the corporate
world -- where using a free but unsupported component is not a common practice
-- we need professional, commercial tools. Borland would benefit from this as well, and should probably do
more to promote third-party vendors than it has done in the past.
Third-party vendors are judged by the quality of work they produce. Many have
provided innovative ideas that have helped Borland to push Delphi in new
directions, and they should be rewarded for their efforts. My advice is to let vendors know you appreciate their
work by buying the original tool instead of the cheap imitation. Make sure,
though, that you ask vendors for the quality documentation and support they've promised you.
Vendors should do their part by avoiding common practices like charging to
make their components compatible with each new version of Delphi. I know that
this fee often includes the addition of new features, but I think an upgrade for
compatibility only should always be available for free to current owners.
Although I support the efforts of third-party vendors, I also believe that the
Delphi community needs freeware and open source projects, which are flourishing. Some of those components are
innovative, very high quality, and provide frequent fixes and updates.
What it comes down to is this: I don't think that building a cheap clone of an existing third-party component does
a great service to the community, even though some programmers can't afford those
existing components. But open source projects can foster innovation, as the Jedi project has clearly
done. These projects can push Delphi to new heights, providing a service to Borland and to the community. Borland has recently acknowledged
this fact with the Delphi 5 companion CD, but should
take care not to support open source at the expense of the vendors.
Finally, I'd like to mention an interesting development that might help close
the rift between the two factions of the component builder community. Nevrona
Designs has announced the "red-hatting" of the open source project
Winshoes. I agree with Winshoes
project coordinator Chad Hower that this can be a win-win situation. People who want the free components will be able to download them, as in the past. People who want documentation and premium support
will pay for it and, therefore, subsidize the project. The relationship is the same
as that between Red Hat and Linux, and makes perfect sense. Look for more
moves in this direction in the future.
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