Earlier this week, Amazon Web Services general manager Andi Gutmans responded (opens in new tab) to a recent New York Times report criticizing the company's use of open source technologies, and saying that he wasn't pleased would be an understatement.
The New York Times article said that Amazon "strip-mined" open source projects by copying them with its own services for use with AWS. That allowed the company to benefit from outside innovations, the report said, while leveraging AWS' popularity.
The first part of that process--financially benefiting from open source projects--isn't particularly novel. Many of the world's largest tech companies incorporate at least some amount of open source technology in the products and services they sell.
The second part, using AWS' popularity to its advantage, resulted in much of the criticism. The New York Times said that several executives--who spoke anonymously to avoid reprisal from Amazon--claimed Amazon was competing unfairly.
Gutmans responded by saying that Amazon has many developer partners who offer services on top of AWS, and that Amazon contributes to over a dozen open source projects as well. But the most passionate response was given in this paragraph:
Customers use open source because it’s supposed to be open, available to run anywhere, and easily used on-premises and in the cloud with whichever providers customers choose to use in these environments. Customers have repeatedly told us that they want AWS to offer managed services for Elasticsearch and other popular open source projects. A number of maintainers of open source projects build commercial companies around the open source project. A small set of outliers see it as a zero-sum game and want to be the only ones able to freely monetize managed services around these open source projects. As such, they have gone back and altered the open source licensing terms, co-mingled truly open source with proprietary code, and tried to make it hard for customers to use other providers’ managed services in the cloud. This is not customer-focused, not what customers want, and not why customers started using the open source project in the first place. We are committed to making sure that open source projects remain truly open and customers get to choose how they use that open source software – whether they choose AWS or not.
This debate is currently limited to the court of public opinion, but that might change. Bloomberg reported earlier this month that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has "been asking software companies recently about practices" used by AWS.
In the case of Elasticsearch, the company open-sourced its core technology, so it was a natural risk that some big competitor might come along and exploit it in exactly that way. I can't feel that much sympathy for them - it's almost as if they were just daring someone to do that.
IMO, there are two viable strategies for businesses to open-source the software they develop:
Act as a consultancy and sell services around the tech (i.e. adding custom features for people, or helping them deploy and optimize it for their use case). Maybe that's what Elastic was trying to do, I don't know.
Open-source non-core technologies - the annoying kinds of nuts and bolts that are necessary but really aren't central to the company's main value proposition or differentiating features. This way, you can offload some of the testing & maintenance burden of those pieces, while also offering something to the community and getting yourself a bit of positive PR with prospective employees.However, it might be the case that some of their biggest customers will only use open source software, for security reasons. Perhaps NYT should've probed that aspect.
After reading the article, I was left feeling like the main complaint was something MS was accused of, back in heyday of Windows. Basically, if you sold PC software and it turned out to be sufficiently profitable, MS would create their own copycat product and drive you out of business. Being the OS vendor supposedly gave them an advantage that they could use non-public features of the OS, but the main advantages they had were being able to bankroll big development efforts and using their market power to push their version and create bundle deals with PC vendors.
Another analogy, that hits a little closer to Amazon's home, would be the way Amazon Marketplace sellers complain when Amazon seems to "notice" their successful products and finds a way to source and sell the same thing for less $. This could apply directly to AWS, and the only way that open source factors in is that you're just saving them the effort of re-implementing your service from scratch.
I do think the article overly-focuses on open source, however. Although they're particularly vulnerable, even services not using open source can suffer from the same problem of doing all the hard work to innovate a product category and build a market for it, only to have Amazon take notice of its popularity and swoop in with a competing service. It's just that open source makes this very easy for Amazon.
An interesting possibility might be to have governments run datacenters, or maybe they just mandate that the datacenter operator can only provide the bare metal and limited facilities for using it. This would essentially create a shared data center, where Google, MS, AWS, and others could all co-exist, allowing customers to pick-and-choose features and services from each. So, if the current model is a department store, then a "level playing field" would be more like a shopping mall or a town's shopping district. In other words, it would cut the amount of vertical integration that AWS can offer, thereby enabling other service providers and datacenter operators to more easily compete.
If this sounds strange, to you, I would point out that my analogy between physical infrastructure and cloud infrastructure is a very deliberate one. If we employ government to help establish and manage shared physical space, why not extend this into the virtual realm? Or, even if it's not owned or run by a government entity, governments could establish a set of regulation to help foster fair competition and more level playing fields.
Maybe the piece doesn't go quite as far as I'd like - such as probing why some of these companies even decided to use an open source development model for their software, but it's the sort of piece I could imagine getting reported if there were an analogous situation had nothing to do with web services or the cloud.
Note that the article's author did not coin the phrase "strip-mining open source". It was properly attributed, in the article's text.
There's such a thing as building a narrative. The line between this and "selectively interpreting facts" can be a little blurry, but I don't think the NYT piece crosses it.
Without narrative, news stories would just be collections of assorted facts. Fewer people would read them, and those who did would take away much less. Good reporting finds a strong through-line that connects facts and events. And when there are details which don't line up with it, calling them out as such can even make them more memorable and noteworthy.