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Google's Open Manifesto Tells It Like It Is

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Jonathan Rosenberg, senior VP of product management at Google (s goog), 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.

11 Responses to “Google's Open Manifesto Tells It Like It Is”

  1. And there’s a problem with this?

    Free/Open Source Software is good for everybody, even the people who aren’t aware that it exists. It is impossible to support open source without having it do you some good as well. That’s the point.

    Consider a row of shops: They all pay taxes so that the government can maintain a street in front of the shops so that customers can get there. They can’t help themselves without helping their competitor too. Still, they all cooperate, because they all benefit from it. It’s Game Theory all over again.

    The Internet is the street that connects customers to online shops, and the Internet is built on Free/Open Source software – and there isn’t even any other sane way to do it.

  2. Brett Glass

    “Open what I say, not what I do.”

    Sebastian: I realize that you’ve now joined a publication whose revenue mostly comes from Google, which (maybe for this reason) rarely says anything even the slightest bit negative about Google, and which has adopted most if not all of Google’s corporate agendas (e.g. support of “network neutrality” regulation that would do great harm to the public so as to benefit Google). But I hope that you will steer it back toward a reasonable worldview. And I especially hope that you’ll steer it away from its anti-ISP stance.

  3. Anonymous

    @Mark — I very much agree with your assessment of Android and how its openness fuels commoditization while proprietary apps from Google sit on top of it. That’s an open/closed one-two punch.


  4. While the company deserves major kudos for even being willing to open up their proprietary core as much as they do (think how a company like Yelp avoided having to re-create the wheel or throw a sinkhole of costs to incorporate rich mapping functionality), I also have to roll the eyes a bit, as it all feels like selective adherence to the openness credo.

    After all, it’s not like crown jewels like the search index are white boxes for consumers to granularly control or repurpose, or for brands/publishers to do the same.

    And of course, the company exercises fairly tight control over what data is shared and what is proprietary to Google. For example, all of these years later, nobody really knows what the arbitrage “open” Google makes in the AdSense/AdWord model, yet by contrast, “closed” Apple’s 70/30 split is pretty transparent.

    And while Android is open source – because it just makes sense – the Google apps that ride on top of it are not open source, which to me fits the old mantra of “be open where commoditization is the goal, be closed when proprietary differentiation is the goal.”

    The ends justify the means, with a touch of do no evil (or not too much). All that said, a great company relative to the rest.