eBay has begun providing open-source code for some of its search and access applications to expand its external developer community. The software will be available under a new program called Community Codebase, which was announced at the eBay Developers Conference in San Jose, California, on Tuesday.

With just over 20 per cent of the listed items on eBay coming in through applications and tools provided by external developers, the auction giant is hoping to encourage developers to find new ways of using the online marketplace.

"We’ve seen lots of great examples of open-source applications, clearly; Linux, Apache and Firefox just to name a few. We wanted to really tap that mindshare and that creativity on a global basis. And so, having a really big push with open source is the way to do that,” said Greg Isaacs, director of eBay’s developer program.

The Community Codebase is free for all members of eBay’s Developers Program and PayPal Developer Network. (Pay Pal is owned by eBay.) It allows individual developers and companies to access source code for various eBay and PayPal tools and applications. An example is a Java application that allows TiVo users to search and bid on items via their digital video recorder boxes. Other examples include a Firefox toolbar, various Pay Pal toolkits and an application used to extract information from Pay Pal’s database and putting it into Microsoft Corp.'s Excel spreadsheet software.

eBay created its first program for developers in 2000 and has 15,000 registered members today.

Managing the community is done partly with software from CollabNet that gives the developers and eBay tools for revision control, issue tracking and discussion forums.

Even though Isaacs stressed that the open source approach was an "easy decision to make,” courting the open-source community can sometimes prove difficult.

"It’s not like open source is bad or good. It depends on what you're trying to accomplish. They [eBay] don’t make their money off of their source code, they make their money out of the whole package,” said Larry McVoy, chief executive officer of South San Francisco-based BitMover, which has been involved in the Linux kernel development.

Revenue generator

BitMover, however, does make money off its source code, and McVoy plans to change his company's open-source approach next month because of a licensing dispute with Samba developer Andrew Tridgell. After years of allowing open-source developers to use his BitKeeper source code management system free of charge, BitMover will next month begin charging them for the right to use its software.

Still, McVoy thinks eBay's move makes sense because it has an alternative form of generating revenue.

"There’s probably significant advantage for eBay in terms of opening it [the eBay applications source code] up, getting more people using it, more people working with eBay. Anything that draws more eyeballs to eBay is good for eBay.”

With the Community Codebase program, eBay also follows in the footsteps of competitors such as Amazon and Google by giving away access to the content in its database. Individual members will now have access to 10,000 database calls per month. For companies, accessing the database ranges from a flat fee of US$100 up to whatever is negotiated.

In the first quarter of 2005, eBay supported approximately 1.7 billion monthly requests through external applications, which made up 42 per cent of all calls to the eBay database.