Google’s “proprietary information” (or, what makes Google money stays in Google)

From Steven Levy’s marvellous new book on Google:

“[Google] was becoming less a research project than an Internet start-up run from a private university. Page and Brin’s reluctance fo write a paper about their work had become notorious in the department. ‘People were saying ‘Why is this so secret? This is an academic project, we should be able to know how it worked’ says Terry Winograd.

Page, it seemed, had a conflict about information. On one hand, he subscribed heartily to the hacker philosophy about shared knowledge… But he also had a strong sense of protecting his hard-won proprietary information.” (My emphasis)

This pattern of sharing everything except the information and code which actually makes you money was set very early, and continues to this day. You can see it with Android: The bits which Google gives away aren’t the ones which define “the Android experience” for customers, like Gmail, YouTube and Maps, but the code which allows geeks to tinker. And, of course, the algorithms and data which makes Google its money via advertising remain very, very securely under lock and key.

I should say at this point: There’s nothing morally objectionable about this approach. But I think that this tension between what’s open and what’s closed at Google will, sooner or later, be something that forces the company to redefine itself.

Levy’s book, incidentally, is full of gems like this, and I’d highly recommend it.

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  • chuck goolsbee

    not to mention their datacenters, where they are and what is in them. Almost a decade after they built their first ones they STILL do not appear on Google maps. All the information that they have released about their datacenters are either complete misinformation. For example: shipping containers – they don’t really use them except in one half, of ONE facility. Another example: Their custom servers. What they shared with the world was a five year old design, already retired from service.

  • Ian Betteridge

    Yep. And it’s worth saying again: There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It’s just worth pointing out that Google is open when it suits Google, about stuff it doesn’t make money off. In that, they’re much like everyone else.

  • Nick Sweeney

    The point about datacenters is fascinating. I know the address of the one in Lenoir, NC (here) but it’s not marked or discoverable on Google Maps in the way most business addresses are.