Time for Amazon to pay its dues to open source?
by Glyn Moody
It's nearly summertime. How do I know? Not, of course, by looking at the iffy British weather outside, but because Google's Summer of Code is here again:
Google Summer of Code (GSoC) is a global program that offers student developers stipends to write code for various open source software projects. We have worked with several open source, free software, and technology-related groups to identify and fund several projects over a three month period. Since its inception in 2005, the program has brought together over 4,500 students and more than more than 4,000 mentors & co-mentors from over 85 countries worldwide, all for the love of code. Through Google Summer of Code, accepted student applicants are paired with a mentor or mentors from the participating projects, thus gaining exposure to real-world software development scenarios and the opportunity for employment in areas related to their academic pursuits. In turn, the participating projects are able to more easily identify and bring in new developers. Best of all, more source code is created and released for the use and benefit of all.
Now, say what you will about Google – and there are certainly things to say that aren't exactly complimentary – but this provides a very useful boost for free software, which finds it hard to fund coders to do all those little tasks that need doing but that nobody ever quite got round to. It also helps train the next generation of hackers – something of vital importance.
And that's just one of the ways that Google supports open source. Releasing the code for Android (well, eventually) is another, as is employing many of the top open source hackers at presumably generous salaries (who says giving away your code doesn't pay?)
Now let's compare Google with another leading technology company that also runs its operations pretty much entirely on free software: Amazon. Like Google with its Android system, Amazon too has a Linux-based product that promises to turn its market completely on its head. In fact, just this week a significant milestone was passed in this regard:
Amazon began selling hardcover and paperback books in July 1995. Twelve years later in November 2007, Amazon introduced the revolutionary Kindle and began selling Kindle books. By July 2010, Kindle book sales had surpassed hardcover book sales, and six months later, Kindle books overtook paperback books to become the most popular format on Amazon.com. Today, less than four years after introducing Kindle books, Amazon.com customers are now purchasing more Kindle books than all print books – hardcover and paperback – combined.
Moreover, if the consensus reading of hints dropped by Amazon's Bezos is correct, his company's dependence on open source is likely to increase significantly. So, what does Amazon give back to the world of free software?
According to a comment on this admittedly old post by Tim O'Reilly, Amazon is “a heavy user of Perl, MySQL, and Mason”:
Recent releases of Mason include code written at Amazon.
But to what other projects does it contribute? I imagine there must be some by now, but I've not been able to find any – anyone know?
Then there's the matter of that Kindle code. A couple of years ago, people became rather excited by this:
Well, here's a nice start to what Jeff Bezos was saying about giving the Kindle reader team some competition: Amazon just released source code for all its Kindle devices.
Alas, that turned out not to be the case, exactly:
Contrary to the ambiguous headlines declaring that Amazon is opening the Kindle, the reality is that Amazon has not released a significant quantity of new code and is not empowering competitors to replicate their successful product.
In addition to the Linux kernel, the underlying Kindle software platform uses other existing open source software components such as the GStreamer multimedia library and the BusyBox shell. In conformance with the requirements of the licenses, Amazon is merely publishing its own modified versions of existing open source components.
Again, that was a couple of years ago, but as far as I am aware, things haven't changed.
So, modulo any corrections you might want to send in, Amazon's contribution to the open source world seems pretty minimal. That's not only ungrateful, it's unwise. It's in Amazon's best interests that the projects it depends on thrive: the better they become, the better Amazon's infrastructure and products will work. Although Amazon can – and presumably does – tweak open source code itself in order to optimise its performance, the history of this field shows that the benefits of sharing such tweaks outweigh any concerns about losing competitive advantage. Amazon seems not to have learned that lesson – maybe it should read some of the books that it sells about open source.
Of course, there's no suggestion here that Amazon is not respecting the open source licences of the code that it uses, and it is perfectly within its rights not to give back to the free software community. But the same is true of Google, which does choose to support that community in a variety of ways, because it knows that it is not only the right thing to do, it is the rational thing to do.
Given the extraordinary success that Amazon seems to be having in the e-reader market, and the possibility that it will start deploying even more open source soon, now would be an an excellent time for Jeff Bezos to commit publicly to giving to as well as taking from the culture that is making all that possible.
In the meantime, we might start thinking about some of the ways that Amazon could support open source. Releasing all the Kindle code to allow people to hack on it would be a good start, as would contributing its tweaks of infrastructure software back to the relevant projects.
And following in the footsteps of Google's highly-successful Summer of Code, Amazon might introduce its own global program to give back to the free software community and nurture skills there: the Amazon Summer of Documentation. This would provide funds for teams of students, writers and coders to put together freely-available documentation for open source projects – there could even be Kindle versions. Since it looks like Amazon is getting into the publishing business in a big way it could offer plenty of mentoring for such a project. How about it, Jeff?