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Visit Amazon Light at www.kokogiak.com/amazon4, and you’ll see a plain search box that allows you to locate any product in Amazon.com’s database. Click on an item, and you’ll be taken to a page with the usual product image, price information, and customer reviews, and, of course, the familiar “Buy This” button. Amazon Light’s pages are deliberately less cluttered than those at Amazon itself, but the family relationship is obvious.

Look closer, however, and you’ll spot some distinctly non-Amazonian features. If the item you’re viewing is a DVD, for example, there will be a button that lets you see in a single click whether the same disc is for rent at Netflix. If it’s a CD, you can check whether Apple’s iTunes music store has a downloadable version. And if it’s a book, Amazon Light will even tell you whether it’s on the shelf at your local public library.

What’s going on here? Surely, executives at Seattle-based Amazon would never condone an online service that encourages people to buy things from sites other than Amazon?

Actually, they would. Amazon Light, created by former Amazon programmer Alan Taylor and hosted on his personal website, kokogiak.com, is one of thousands of independent sites incorporating the product data and programming tools that Amazon has been sharing freely since July 16, 2002. That’s the day Amazon celebrated its seventh anniversary – and unveiled a startling new project, called Amazon Web Services, that promises to change, once again, the way retailers of all stripes think about reaching their customers.

While companies such as Google and Microsoft are also experimenting with the idea of letting outsiders tap into their databases and use their content in unpredictable ways (see “What’s Next for Google?”), none is proceeding more aggressively than Amazon. The company has, in essence, outsourced much of its R&D, and a growing portion of its actual sales, to an army of thousands of software developers, who apparently enjoy nothing more than finding creative new ways to give Web surfers access to Amazon merchandise – and earning a few bucks in the process. The result: a syndicate of mini-Amazons operating at very little cost to Amazon itself and capturing customers who might otherwise have gone elsewhere. It’s as if Starbucks were to recruit 50,000 of its most loyal caffeine addicts to strap urns of coffee to their backs each morning and, for a small commission, spend the day dispensing the elixir to their officemates.

“Amazon is pouring so many resources into their Web services that it’s almost frightening,” says Paul Bausch, one of the inventors of the well-known weblogging tool Blogger and, more recently, the author of O’Reilly Media’s Amazon Hacks, a collection of tips for tapping into Amazon’s rich database. “They are extremely aggressive, and that separates them from Google and from other people who are still just experimenting with the technology. They really believe that this is where their business is heading.”

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