Google's Open Manifesto Tells It Like It Is

Jonathan Rosenberg, senior VP of product management at Google, late Monday afternoon put up what was more of a tome than a post on the company’s blog, entitled “The Meaning of Open.” Originally sent to Google employees as an email, it reads like a manifesto.

Arguments about exactly what an open technology strategy is, compared to a closed one, have of course been raging for years. In the open source community, the Free Software Definition explicitly states that truly free software means “free as in speech, not free as in beer.” It further explicitly states that freeware — software applications that you or I can use without paying — differs from true open-source software, the source code of which we can view and change.

Rosenberg’s open manifesto goes well beyond the concept of open-source software, however, tackling open standards, the value of an open Internet and the very concept of open information overall. He writes:

“To understand our position in more detail, it helps to start with the assertion that open systems win. This is counter-intuitive to the traditionally trained MBA who is taught to generate a sustainable competitive advantage by creating a closed system, making it popular, then milking it through the product life cycle. The conventional wisdom goes that companies should lock in customers to lock out competitors…Open systems are just the opposite.”

While Google is far from perfectly open in every aspect of its business, it is one of the largest contributors of free, open-source code, and the company does indeed do transformative things through open efforts. The best and most recent example would be the enormous success that Google’s open-source Android platform has become. There are nearly 20 Android handsets from major manufacturers, and the OS is spreading out to non-phone devices.

Let’s not get snookered here, though. Although Google has contributed Android’s code to the open source community, the company wants Android and applications that run on top of it to steer as many users as possible into Google’s own, lucrative search-and-ad ecosystems. That ecosystem is not entirely open, nor are the details on personal habits and information that Google collects entirely transparent.

One thing I really liked about Rosenberg’s essay was that he basically comes right out and ‘fesses up to all of this. “Our commitment to open systems is not altruistic,” he writes.

There you have it. I don’t question Google’s commitment to openness across many of its efforts (though not all), but I don’t believe for a second that Google approaches the concept of openness absent self-interest. Make no mistake: Google serves openness because openness serves Google.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user Cane Rosso.

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