What Google Really Means by 'The Meaning of Open'

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-12-22 Print this article Print

Read "The Meaning of Open" by Jonathan Rosenberg, Google senior vice president of product management, because it's a great read, but read it knowing a few things.

First, Google open-sources a lot of software; in fact, Rosenberg claims Google is the largest open-source contributor in the world, contributing over 800 projects that total over 20 million lines of code to open source.

Google has ceded code to Apache for its Android mobile operating system (though some say Google isn't as open as it could be here), Chrome Web browser, Chrome Operating System, Google Wave, Google Gears and a raft of other technologies.

Heck, it just bought AppJet Dec. 4 and two weeks later it helped the AppJet guys open-source their EtherPad code.

So Google knows how to open-source code with the best of them. But Google also knows how to close systems with the best of them. Hence, its search and advertising platforms, which ironically is where Google makes its money. Rosenberg wrote:

While we are committed to opening the code for our developer tools, not all Google products are open source. Our goal is to keep the Internet open, which promotes choice and competition and keeps users and developers from getting locked in. In many cases, most notably our search and ads products, opening up the code would not contribute to these goals and would actually hurt users. The search and advertising markets are already highly competitive with very low switching costs, so users and advertisers already have plenty of choice and are not locked in. Not to mention the fact that opening up these systems would allow people to "game" our algorithms to manipulate search and ads quality rankings, reducing our quality for everyone.

Don't be fooled by the spin that Google would stymie competition or even destroy its search engine by open-sourcing it. Update: There's another reason for Google keeping these platforms closed: Google would never risk open sourcing its search ad platforms because it would destroy its primary money-making machines.

From a capitalism standpoint, it's the closed and proprietary search and advertising that enable Google to rake in the bulk of its $20 billion-plus per year.

Don't be fooled by the smokescreen that the competition is a click away.

Tell that to users who have put five years' worth of e-mail and files into Google's Gmail. Sure, the Data Liberation Front lets users export data, but who would really do this unless Google pushed them away? Google, by virtue of ease of use and free Web services, is devilishly attractive; users find it hard to part from the leading search and Web services provider.

Open and free -- Android, Chrome OS -- don't make Google money. Recognize that Android and Chrome OS are merely platforms upon which Google will extend its search and advertising tendrils and you have Google's business model in a nutshell.

It's fair to say Android and the other open-source efforts don't directly make Google money, but they drive users to where the money is. And that's the bottom line to understanding Google.

Gartner's Brian Prentice has a must-read on Rosenberg's piece here. Also read more pontificating and opining on this topic on Techmeme here.

Rosenberg also discusses Google's effort to be open regarding the data it collects on users, which he asserts Google needs to constantly tweak and improve its search engine and other Web services.

I personally think Google's efforts here are exceptional, providing plenty of info at users' discretion. However, privacy advocates would prefer products such as Google Dashboard, which summarizes the application data associated with Google accounts, to tell users how the search engine is tracking their Web surfing habits, from Web requests to cookies and interest-based ads.

What do you think? Does Google need to step up its information disclosure practices in 2010 regarding its data collection?

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