Is Open Source like VB?

Stephen O’Grady discussed an interesting idea on his blog about how open source is like visual basic:

“They share an important, even crucial, attribute: the ability to dramatically expand the size of their potential audience and userbase. How they accomplish that end differs dramatically; in the case of VB, it was largely a focus on simplification, ease of use and an improved toolset, while open source has relied more on transparency, low (or no) cost, inherent distribution advantages and collaborative development. The net result, in either case, is a dramatically expanded potential audience.” (tecosystems / RedMonk)

At first glance, I did not agree with the open source is like VB concept; however, as I was writing my response, I noticed more and more similarities finally coming up with one primary theme. Open source and VB were able to expand their audience and user base only when they shifted the balance of power into the hands of the end user rather than keeping all of the power with the developer.

The beauty of VB was that it was so easy to use that anyone could program in it. From my experience, the people using VB did not typically come from a traditional programming background; they were ordinary users or new programmers who now had the ability to easily and quickly write programs. Previously, this could only be accomplished with years of education and programming experience. With VB, the power was now in the hands of the users and not the hard core programmers.

Open source, on the other hand, began with developers scratching an itch (as Eric Raymond would say), but open source programs were often difficult or impossible for an ordinary person to install and use. It was not until open source software began embracing the end user as a primary customer that they were able to expand quickly. Firefox is a perfect example; users can easily get Firefox, install it, and find extensions and themes that allow them to customize their environment. Firefox, like VB, puts the power into the hands of the users rather than keeping it in the hands of the developers.

In summary, with VB and open source, putting the power into the hands of the end users seems to have a dramatic impact on how quickly the audience expands.