The Kindle Fire and the Triumph of Open Source

Today’s big tech news is the release of a new generation of Amazon Kindles. Of particular interest is the Kindle Fire, a $199, 7-inch color touchscreen tablet based on Android. It seems destined to become the most credible competitor to the iPad.

One point I haven’t seen anyone make about this is the importance of open source software to the evolution of the tablet computing market. Google decided to make Android an open-source operating system, which meant that third parties could take the code, tweak it for their own needs, and sell competing Android-based products. That’s what Barnes and Noble did last year with the Nook Color, and it’s what Amazon did to create the Kindle Fire.

Obviously, the fact that Android was available has made it much easier for Barnes and Noble and Amazon—as well as traditional consumer electronics firms like Samsung and Motorola—to enter the market. But it also has important implications for the long-term future of competition in the tablet market. Software platforms tend to be a winner-take-all affair thanks to network effects. In the PC operating system market, 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. The same thing happened with browsers: intense competition in the late 1990s between Netscape and Microsoft, followed by a period in the early 2000s where Microsoft was utterly dominant and browser innovation slowed.

Things 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.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s announcement of the Kindle Fire adds to Android’s already-considerable momentum. The Kindle Fire and stock Android tablets will reportedly be able to run each others’ apps, which means that the success of one will expand the market for the other.

It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, but I suspect that tablets and browsers will be dominated by Android and WebKit, respectively. Yet because Android and WebKit are open source projects, there’s little danger that their growing popularity will lead to the dominance of one firm, with the resulting stagnation. Even if the market is dominated by a single platform, that market share will be shared among several companies that build products using that platform, who wil compete with each other to produce enhancements to the underlying, shared code. And because firms won’t have to build new OSes or browsers from scratch, barriers to entry will be low. The future of the open Internet is looking really bright.

Cross-posted from Forbes.com