February 2004

From: Kevin Bedell
Subject: Amazon and Open Source


I know you speak frequently about Amazon. What has made it so successful?


Amazon realized early on that amazon.com was more than just a book site, more in fact than just an e-commerce site, the Wal-Mart of the Internet. It was beginning to become an e-commerce platform. Open source has been a key part of the Amazon story. Linux on commodity hardware has allowed amazon.com to cut its costs by an order of magnitude since it launched, and it is a heavy user of Perl, MySQL, and Mason. But at the same time, Amazon represents a key challenge to many parts of the open source story:

  • Even though amazon.com is built on top of open source software, the licenses compel no release of Amazon source because its software is never distributed. In the new world of the Internet, software is a service, not an artifact.
  • Nonetheless, Amazon has created its own "architecture of participation," one that is perhaps even richer than that of many open source software development communities. Through incentives such as the Associates program, Amazon has built a community of contributors that numbers in the millions. Everyone who rates books, creates Listmania Lists, or even just buys books and contributes to the sales-rank calculations, helps to build the amazon.com interface. amazon.com and BN.com have the same publisher data, the same products, and relatively similar software features. What amazon.com has that makes it special is what its users have added. This is something that open source advocates, who are often too fixated on licenses, need to take note of. Amazon has closed code but a robust architecture for participating in the data layer of the interface.

Amazon realizes some of the incongruity between its closed, proprietary code and the many benefits it has received from open source, and it has become a leader in thinking about how to redress the balance. Starting with my protest against the Amazon 1-Click patent suit against BN.com (that was later settled), I've engaged in a dialog with Amazon about how it can make itself more open to innovation from outside, and give flexibility back to users, without giving its competitive advantage away to users. One result of that dialog was the Amazon Web Services API, which we've documented in the book Amazon Hacks. No, it's not open source, but it's exploring the question of how to "open up" a services platform in a way that lets developers reuse the code and data in creative ways. I like to think that this makes Amazon at least a fellow traveler with open source, a company the open source community needs to learn from as well as try to teach.

(I feel the same way about EBay, Google, and Yahoo! Figuring out how these guys play with open source, beyond just using it for their infrastructure, is, to me, one of the largest challenges for the open source community--perhaps even larger than the challenge of getting Linux on the desktop.)


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