I often speak about the implications of Open Source for software companies probably because that's where I make my living now - investing in Open Source startups and helping them develop their business models.
However, a recent talk by Mark Shuttleworth inspired me to comment on one of the major reasons for the success of Open Source among end users: individual empowerment. I remember with great clarity the first time I truly understood the empowering nature of Open Source. I've been contributing to Free Software since 1985, but it was a seemingly trivial experience I had in 1995 that caused the light bulbs to go on for me.
Although my business at the time was built on Linux, we were using QuickBooks as our accounting system. Our printers were networked (Samba), and when we tried to use a networked printer from QuickBooks, QuickBooks would crash. After some debugging, I discovered the reason for the crash. QuickBooks could handle 11 character printer names (DOS legacy 8+3 device names), but longer names (as were common with networked devices) were overrunning a buffer and causing a crash.
Any of us who have written code can picture the error in the QuickBooks source. But of course, QuickBooks is not Free or Open Source Software. I spent half a day trying to get through technical support at Intuit to explain that not only did I have a problem, but I understood the nature of the flaw in their software. I was motivated by the desire to help Intuit make QuickBooks a better product, and simply wanted to get my bug report in front of the right developers who could make the fix. It was an incredibly frustrating experience that left me with a great feeling of helplessness. I knew the problem, and had the skills to fix it. But I couldn't get through and Intuit technical support stymied my best attempts. QuickBooks, it seems, did not support "networked use", and any correspoding bugs were simply disregarded. Since I couldn't re-create a printer device name longer than 11 characters in MS-DOS without pointing to a networked device, the problem was not one Intuit technical support would record.
Although in many ways that one event is just a small and trivial example, it became a defining moment for me. Although at the time I had been contributing to Free software for 10 years (since 1985), I never understood how empowering to the user it was until that moment. To this day I look back at moment as the instance I truly understood why Open Source will win.