The media hypes Amazon’s new tablet “Kindle Fire” (see the commercial above) as the first credible competitor to Apple’s iPad. And some, such as Forbes’ Timothy B. Lee, celebrate the Kindle Fire as “the Triumph of Open Source“. Comparing the tablet market to the early PC market, where “the 1980s were a period of intense competition and rapid innovation, followed by the 1990s when Windows became utterly dominant and the pace of innovation slowed”, Lee argues that
[t]hings are different now because both the browser and OS markets are becoming dominated by open source software. In the browser market, the two fastest-growing browsers—Safari and Chrome—are both built on top of WebKit, an open source project started by Apple. And now Amazon’s new browser, called Silk, is also built on WebKit. It’s unlikely Amazon would have entered the browser market if they’d had to build a browser from scratch.
This leads him to the conclusion that, even if the market may be dominated by a single platform such as Android or WebKit, there will still be competition between several companies that build products based upon the underlying, shared code.
While I tend to agree that an open source platform such as android is preferable compared to closed-source platforms such as iOS, the Kindle Fire comes with a largely closed ecosystem. For example, the Kindle requires its users to exclusively use the Amazon app store. JR Raphael at Computerworld describes the consequence of this restriction as a “hidden app tax“:
[A]ny apps you’ve already purchased from the Market will have to be bought again (provided they’re available in Amazon’s app store, of course) in order to be used on the Kindle Fire. This is a sharp contrast from most Android devices, where any app you’ve purchased can be freely transferred from one phone or tablet to another.
On a more general level, the Kindle Fire is exemplary for the “movement of technology from product to service“, as described by Jonathan Zittrain on the blog related to his book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it” (2008, PDF). Zittrain considers this to be problematic since
“[p]roviders of a product have little to say about it after it changes hands. Providers of services are different: they don’t go away, and a choice of one over another can have lingering implications for months and even years.
Furthermore, he criticizes that the gatekeeping role of service providers such as Apple or Amazon blocks entire categories of applications that could be disruptive to their business models or that of their partners or regulators. This means “[n]o p2p, no alternate email clients, browsers with limited functionality” (see also previous blog posts on the “Kindle controversy“). In effect, Zittrain fears that competition between service providers is not enough to preserve the web’s openess:
So how about competition between platforms? Doesn’t that keep each competitor honest, even if all the platforms are curated? I suppose: the way that Prodigy and CompuServe and AOL competed with one another to offer different services as each chased subscribers. (Remember the day when AOL members couldn’t email CompuServe users and vice versa?) That was competition of a sort, but the Internet and the Web put them all to shame — even as the Internet arose from no business plan at all.
Taken together, the Kindle Fire might be a triumph for open source. But at the same time this need not be a triumph for openness in general.