“The printer story” redux: a testimonial about the injustice of proprietary firmware
As part of his explanation of the early history of free software, Richard Stallman (RMS) often tells a story about his frustration with the locked-down software on a laser printer. If you're not familiar with the printer story, you can read it in RMS's own words here. It's an early, easy-to-understand example of how proprietary software deprives users of control over their lives.
In today's testimonial, an anonymous supporter details a much more recent incident that made it concrete to him how unjust, cruel, and arbitrary the restrictions imposed by software manufacturers can be. Because the writer is not a native English speaker, we've clarified his words a bit for readability.
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I’ve always supported free software, but never felt the concrete importance of it until proprietary firmware threatened to cause a big problem, in terms of money, time, and environmental impact, for the company where I work. It’s a mid-sized company, employing about one thousand people. It’s highly production-oriented, and we need to print about two or three thousand paper sheets per week only for the production plans, on a special kind of paper. This number doesn’t include any reprints or further needs, so the total printed pages can be even higher.
We used to print everything with an old printer, which worked fine, but it didn't have an integrated stapler, and required a lot of human time to staple all the sheets as needed. After a production increase and the consequent increase in printing of orders, we asked for a new printer with an integrated stapler.
After some weeks of testing and a lot of work to try and make the printer handle our production orders, we faced a big problem: the printer couldn’t do what we needed. If we tried to print on the special paper, the printer printed perfectly but automatically disabled the stapler, because it’s developed to not work with a thicker sheet of paper. We would need a more complex (and expensive) stapling system. If we modified the paper settings to “normal paper,” the stapler would work fine, but the printing came out faded.
We requested technical support, and after some tests, the technician said that the printer is capable of printing on the special paper, and it's capable of stapling, but it can't do both at the same time. Why doesn’t it work? Because the firmware doesn’t foresee this particular instance of use, and it can’t be modified. We need to use a thinner paper.
What about the 80 thousand paper sheets we already had in the warehouse? We managed this problem for months by printing different production orders with the old printer and hand-stapling, but this was a waste of time for us. It would have saved time to just throw away the extra paper and buy new paper, but this would have an unacceptable environmental and monetary impact.
There was absolutely no reason that the new printer couldn't print and staple the old paper, but the firmware developers simply wouldn't let us do it. Instead, we have had to adapt ourselves to the printer software. In a just and fair society, software could be adapted to people's needs, and people wouldn't have to adapt instead to the software. This is why free software is necessary.