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article imageOp-Ed: Is Amazon Web Services ripping off developers? A mess.

By Paul Wallis     Dec 15, 2019 in Technology
New York City - Open source is one of the surviving icons of the idealistic original internet. The world was to be connected, developers could deliver free software, and it happened. Now, open source and Amazon Web Services are clashing severely.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) is currently being accused of using open source software to compete with its developers. This isn’t necessarily illegal, or even unusual, but it is very tricky. The New York Times has a few insights into this mess which need to be read to fully understand the depth of the problems. In essence, AWS, which is a very broad-based go-to Cloud service, is, of course, a huge player in Cloud software services. The problem in some cases is that Amazon is alleged to have copied the software of their own clients, and used it to compete with them in providing services. (Note: The section in the NYT piece about Elasticsearch is indicative of the many issues and types of problems.)
This situation is anything but simple. Others say that Amazon sales of the software and services that drive their revenue are destructive and competitive. The big picture is made of a lot of different small pictures, and you could be forgiven for feeling a bit lost when you see the multiple views on the open source story.
One of the accusations against AWS is that it’s starving startups of revenue. That’s not at all trivial. Startups are vulnerable, like all new businesses. Their intellectual property is in many ways their working capital. If they’re not getting enough out of their IP, it’s a real problem.
If a global giant corporation is somehow throwing spanners in the works, it’s a worse problem. Fighting AWS is likely to be expensive, and worse, counterproductive and/or inconclusive. The startup Square One, a stable revenue stream, isn’t helped by this situation.
Legal issues, maybe, sorta, kinda, definitely, not, but…
The predictable legal issues are likely to take on the size of a dictionary. This helps nobody, and the IP issues are truly huge. Strictly speaking, all software is subject to a type of theoretical IP rights. People can’t just walk into your shop, steal the goods you made, and sell it in competition.
…Except this is “open source”, free software. The license and implied licenses are based on a very different perspective to commercial licenses. Only open source has this vagueness about IP.
It’s difficult to even comment on this virtual contradiction in terms without using up a lot of scatologies. You can see how uselessly convoluted this situation is. This is freely available software, gone profitable, so now who owns it? It’s competing with itself in the market.
The self-inflicted quandary for Amazon
There are other issues which are much less obvious and arguably own goals for everyone. AWS is a truly big umbrella. It has everything from standard Cloud services to security, real-time monitoring, quantum computing and more. Its market reach is astronomical.
It’s impossible to say if Amazon has breached any laws at all. You can call it very sharp practice, but not illegal until a court says it is. It’s a very vague legal situation. That, ironically, isn’t the most serious issue.
Amazon as a group has a vested interest in a healthy, even hyper-healthy, software sector. Everything gets sold on Amazon. It makes no sense at all to hit developers with unworkable situations, particularly when it comes to revenue from their products.
AWS operates in a huge money market. It generates billions. All these products are very high value. AWS is positioned to take a share in any new software which makes an impact in this gigantic market.
Putting the developers on the spot, therefore, is like machinegunning every goose that lays a golden egg as a default action. The development process of any type of software is neither easy nor cheap. It can be time-consuming, and only the developers with their babies have that level of application to getting things working.
(Excuse my mentioning how truly half-ass the corporate development programs can be, churning out things which barely run, etc. Semi-tested, barely operational crap isn’t exactly unknown. Everyone’s so meeting-addled that whatever finally comes out is the product, too bad if it doesn’t do anything right or doesn’t even run properly. That’s hardly good enough for this high-end open source stuff, and lousy for future market purposes. That’s why these top-level developers are so important.)
Amazon is also perfectly positioned to partner with these exceptionally high-value developers. Instead of being the problem, it can definitely be the solution. It makes even less sense that it wouldn’t, or doesn’t in these cases. On a purely commercial license, partnership would be the natural, simple, default option for Amazon.
So why not apply it to these very useful open source things? Commercially, it shores up the legals for both Amazon and the developers.
The future is looking very regulated
Until recently, the big tech companies have been more or less given a free hand. That’s changing. The Federal Trades Commission (FTA) is now investigating anti-competitive practices, and that will definitely change the legal environment. Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft can expect regulation to come in sooner or later, either through litigation or through actual law.
The problem with that is that it’s quite likely to cause an expensive upheaval as working business practices have to jerk-start new compliance routines. The average working time for setting up a compliance framework that actually works is about a decade. It’s quite expensive, and quite likely to shake the trees for fruit.
The incoming legal liabilities could be anything. In the broader framework of business, as applied to industry dominance, social media, etc, etc, the regulatory environment can and probably will enter the open source debate, guns blazing. That may mean a major hit to the things that do work for open source at the moment, as well as the things that don’t.
Open source and its very much undervalued market
In the midst of all this, the real value of open source to the market is being entirely overlooked. Open source is usually the introduction to new software. It’s how people familiarize themselves with not only new software, but new concepts. It’s the test bed, the learning tool, and the very useful, surprisingly valuable free sample.
It’s a truly lousy idea to undermine this extremely valuable market position. Nothing else has the market reach of free, useful stuff. It gets people interested. It’s zero financial risk for users. It’s popular. It will always be popular, and usually right up to speed with the current tech people want across the board.
“Almost” open source as a defence?
If open source charges one dollar or one cent per year for itself, it becomes commercial property. It’s better defended legally against any external use of itself, because it’s turned into a defined commercial interest, including IP.
It’s hard to value free software. It’s very easy to value anything with a currency symbol attached to it. Nobody could infringe on it without breaching IP rules.
Let’s clarify something here – Protecting the geese laying the golden eggs is far more important than a few bucks more for the big corporate guys. The corporate guys don’t generate product; they enable it in the market. That’s the way it should be. Without the developers, there is no product to sell, and maybe even no market. Amazon and the other Big Tech companies should be looking at preserving the sources and promoting them, not complicating something which should be simple.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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