How the New York Times Got Open Source Wrong

This past Sunday, The New York Times published an article that equates using open source code with strip-mining. While I am sympathetic to the notion that Amazon has its paws in every conceivable industry and has radically transformed both retail and cloud computing for better or worse, I want to set the record straight about how an open source ecosystem truly operates.

In his article, Daisuke Wakabayashi asserts that “Amazon [Web Services] is choking off the growth of would-be competitors and forcing them to reorient how they do business.” I won’t argue that many of the companies mentioned in the article have changed their business strategy since AWS began using their open source code. But ignoring the open source method by which these individuals created code and built companies around it is missing the bigger picture. And AWS is using what this open source ideology has afforded them in the form of really good code.

When the software behind a commercial product is open source, there’s nothing to stop someone from building another commercial software offering. The term “strip-mining” is used to describe this practice throughout the article, thoroughly undermining the spirit by which this software was initially built and intimating that open source is bad for business.

Wakabayashi cites multiple companies that built open source projects then marketed commercial versions of that software who are now unhappy that AWS is offering their own managed services around the same open source projects. As my colleague Chip Childers, CTO of Cloud Foundry Foundation, recently wrote in an article called There’s No Such Thing as an Open Source Business Model, “Open source works best for a technology company when it’s adopted as a series of strategies and tactics that support an otherwise sound business model — not the other way around.” Think of it this way: when you post your secret apple pie recipe online, it’s not a secret anymore.

AWS has not violated any rule in the open source community. What it has done is take advantage of the superb code and talented engineers in the open source ecosystem. I won’t comment on AWS’ supposed censorship of terms like “multi-cloud” — which is a key component of a vibrant open source ecosystem — or their alleged poaching of engineers from aforementioned companies. I don’t agree with all of Amazon’s business tactics, but I can’t let the New York Times deliver such a gross misrepresentation of open source software to such a broad audience. (And shame on you New York Times for making me defend Amazon.)

I recently predicted that 2020 will see more regulation than ever when it comes to the tech industry. This article is clearly setting the tone for those changes to come. While regulation in tech is necessary, I don’t believe that comparing open source to strip-mining is going to convince the tech industry it should be regulated. In fact, the next time the New York Times — or any big newspaper — wants to learn more about the open source ecosystem, they are welcome to call me.

CTO @ Puppet. Passionate about good food and all things tech. Always learning.

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