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Christmas Gift Guide

Open source and the Kindle

The Kindle reminded me of why we pay for open source, even when we can get it for free.

I've become a big fan of the Kindle in a short time. I don't care about its wireless capabilities - downloading updates to blogs is a waste given that I don't like to read blogs unless I'm in an immediate position to comment on them, and the ability to buy directly from the device is not an earth-shattering advancement - and I find its menu interface a bit clunky.

No, what I really like about the Kindle is the reading experience. It's wonderful. The only thing missing is a backlight for reading in low-light conditions, but it's already better than reading a physical book because the screen is comforting to view and the weight/feel of the product is exceptional.

Amazon Kindle
The Kindle

None of which matters, however, without good content. This is where my open-source experiment comes in.

This week I tried downloading Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey from Project Gutenberg. Because the Kindle easily can read .txt, .pdf (i.e., PDF can be converted into a supported format), and other file formats, it's easy to get free content like Northanger Abbey into the Kindle.

The problem, however, is what happens once it's there.

The content is free. But it's not pretty. Line breaks aren't formatted for the Kindle, making the normally exceptional Kindle-reading experience...much less exceptional. For $1.60, I can have that exact same book with everything pre-formatted for me.

Why save the $1.60? Why not pay?

This is one of the core principles underlying successful open-source companies like Red Hat. Yes, you can compile your own Linux distribution, but why when you can have Red Hat Enterprise Linux Premium for $1,200, which is a drop in the bucket compared to Windows Server and pennies on the dollar compared to proprietary Unix offerings like HP-UX?

Convenience sells. I believe the next wave of "convenience" for open source will be software-as-a-service offerings of SugarCRM, Loopfuse, MindTouch, JBoss, etc. Yes, you can (and many will) download and install these for themselves. But for those who value convenience highly, a SAAS offering will be critical. Try with the on-premise solution, but with SAAS.

Can I get the same reading experience on my Kindle with the free Project Gutenberg texts? Sure. I just need to reformat the .txt files for the Kindle. Or I can pay a few dollars for someone else to do that for me at scale. My time doesn't scale, and is worth a lot more to me than $1.60.

The same is true for IT workers. They can roll their own open-source projects into production, or they can choose to work with vendors that make it easy through support, SAAS, and other convenience-adding features.