On Google’s “openness”

If you want to start a flame war, post something about whether Google is truly “open” or not. Nothing in the world of technology – not even comments on the state of Steve Jobs’ health – is more likely to get people shouting at each other.

Amongst sections of the Mac community, Google gets a lot of stick over its openness. Some criticise Google for putting “open” above “usable”. Others claim that openness is nothing more than a marketing bullet point for Google, and point to its failure to release source code for Honeycomb or its total silence over the core algorithms that power search and ads.

I don’t think Google’s openness is “just” a way to mislead – I genuinely think that internally, there’s a lot of commitment to being as open as is commensurate with being a profitable company.

Some of their efforts are extremely valuable: for example, while I think WebM is crapola, it’s valuable to have a freely-licensable codec that will (hopefully) be widely supported. I doubt that MPEG-LA would have been as generous with the terms for H.264 as they are currently had Google not waved the big stick. And that’s an area where there’s little direct revenue implication for Google.

Having said that, it’s clear that at some point internally, the idea got floated that “we are open” was a good marketing point, and that’s where things began to go wrong. It’s almost impossible for a company which creates code, delivers online services, or (for that matter) makes hardware to be genuinely open. Google could never be open about its search algorithms, not simply because Bing would instantly be as good as Google but also because people would use that information to game the system.

And that’s the issue: Having invoked the magic “open” word, you’re a hostage to fortune. Any time that the rational decision is “don’t be open” (as it is, arguably, with Honeycomb’s source) sneering naysayers like me will be on your case, whacking you over the head.

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  • Anonymous

    Call me when they open up their search engine source code LOL.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Call me when you read the post. Particularly the bit about why you’ll never see them do that. 

  • Anonymous

    No, it’s not because people will game the system.
    It’s because that is the core of their business, the only unique part of Google’s business.

    Take away the search engine, Google is nothing more than a glorified online ads company.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    And again, read the post. Particularly the bit where I said “as is commensurate with being a profitable company.”

  • Anonymous

    It works incredibly well for marketing. I’ve met several people who bought an Android phone because its ‘open’ and iPhone is closed, without having an inkling of a clue what open meant. When I asked a few they said they didn’t want to be locked into having only iPhone apps, nor be locked to a carrier. Its an excellent marketing badge, regardless of the actual technical Interpretation of it. 

  • Anonymous

    This. For the masses, buzzwords rule. I’ve seriously met people who thought the iPhone could only run what Apple “forced them to put on it”, so they bought Android because they wanted to “be able to run other apps.” Preconceptions also rule; I also have met people who still don’t think the iPhone has copy and paste or that Macs are capable of right clicking. I was even talking to a computer science major (!) and he said he didn’t use a Mac because it couldn’t run command line programs. So even computer-savvy people fall victim to false information.

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  • http://twitter.com/21tigermike Michael A. Robson

    Ask Google to define what they mean by open and watch them squirm.

  • http://twitter.com/21tigermike Michael A. Robson

    Everyone knows why they won’t do that…that’s obvious. And it’s obvious when Apple protects their business as well. See what I did there?

  • http://twitter.com/21tigermike Michael A. Robson

    Take away the Search engine and the whole thing comes falling down. All these free ‘products’ depend on AdSense for their existence.

  • http://twitter.com/kevinmarks Kevin Marks

    Well, you could read this excellent blog post by Jonathan Rosenberg, where he does exactly that: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/meaning-of-open.html

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post!

    I don’t find anything about Google’s approach to open source any better or worse than that of Apple’s. They both use open source to further their needs, maintain closed source where it benefits them, and both contribute back to the FOSS community (though Apple moreso than Google but that’s beside the point.) What bothers me most about Google is how successful they’ve been at promoting themselves as champions of openness and demonizing Apple as the complete opposite. And it makes matters worse that so many Google fans parrot that marketing nonsense while often not even knowing what open source means. Can’t count the number of times I’ve had a Google fan tell me Google is more open than Apple because they give away more free services. Or the look of disbelief when I tell them that Chrome is powered largely by Apple’s open source Webkit. I don’t begrudge anyone preferring one company to another but at least know what you’re talking about.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    I think that might fall into the category of “tl;dr” Kevin ;)

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    You’re conflating “free” as in beer with “free” as in free speech. 

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Yes. Sadly, there’s an awful lot of people who think “open” means “doesn’t cost me anything”. To be fair, I don’t think that Google has done anything to encourage that – the conflation of the “gratis” and “libre” meanings of “free” is as old as free software. Just ask Stallman :)

  • http://twitter.com/DannoHung Dan Nugent

    Well, for what it’s worth, I seriously appreciate the work that they have truly open sourced. I just used the zxing library the other day to do some QR code generation and decoding and it was great that that was just out there and it works very nicely.

  • Anonymous

    The tortured reasoning in that blog post is Google squirming. The first time I read it I stopped reading after this gem: “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.”

    As Ian points out, the problem is they aren’t willing to say that they keep some stuff closed because ultimately they are a for-profit company with an obligation to make money. When being “open” would materially impede that goal they won’t be open. Unfortunately at some point Google decided that all their business decisions need to fit into the “we’re open” model, thus the tortured logic.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    I started to write a long comment about how the brand stories of Google are confused. Then it got to 500 words, and I realised it was a post. Which will be coming up later :)

  • Anonymous

    Android does not offer openness; it offers the illusion of openness. The quickest way to nip the argument in the bud is as follows:

    Android user: “Android is better because it’s open.”
    Response: “Android’s open source development model has not translated into an open experience for end users because, more often than not, manufacturers and carriers install customizations and applications that users cannot remove.”
    Android user: “You can just root it.”
    Response: “If installing unauthorized and unsupported software is on the table, Android has no advantage because you can jailbreak iOS and install whatever you want there as well.”
    Android user: “Well HTC has announced it will not stop users from installing custom ROMs.”
    Response: “You cannot call this an advantage for the entire platform until all major manufacturers live up to this promise. Until then, this is an advantage for certain devices, not the platform. It’s not likely that every major manufacturer will follow through on this, especially if Amazon releases a tablet based on Android.”

    At this point, discussions may continue, but the broader advantage myths have been debunked.

  • Anonymous

    You can geek speak “open vs closed” or “Android vs iPhone” all you want. Saying that ppl chose Android having no clue and tying it to marketing means you really didn’t ask anyone. Those are just two small insignificant reasons why. Both you and jfm429 seem to believe those who bought into Android are ignorant which isn’t the case. Randomly asking someone with an Android phone why they chose it isn’t going to give you a true response. In-depth questions should have been your goal for a true answer. Open or free isn’t. There can be just as many legal requirements to that as closed. Some of us do read the clauses and legalities involved when clicking “I agree”.

  • Anonymous

    You can geek speak “open vs closed” or “Android vs iPhone” all you want. Saying that ppl chose Android having no clue and tying it to marketing means you really didn’t ask anyone. Those are just two small insignificant reasons why. Both you and jfm429 seem to believe those who bought into Android are ignorant which isn’t the case. Randomly asking someone with an Android phone why they chose it isn’t going to give you a true response. In-depth questions should have been your goal for a true answer. Open or free isn’t. There can be just as many legal requirements to that as closed. Some of us do read the clauses and legalities involved when clicking “I agree”.

  • Anonymous

    “To be fair, I don’t think that Google has done anything to encourage that”

    They have although it’s fair to debate to what extent. A look at the number of potshots Google execs take at Apple and iOS at the average Google I/O presentation shows a distinct pattern of disparaging Apple as closed and themselves as the free and benevolent alternative. (Vic Gundotra’s often-repeated “Android saved us all from a future controlled by one man, one company” comment comes to mind here.)

    See this article as a reminder of how heavily Google has pushed this:

    http://www.tomsguide.com/us/Google-Android-Gundotra-Steve-Jobs,news-6875.html

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    To be fair to Rubin (I’m being very fair today!) I think he’s right about the “saved us from a future controlled by one man, one company”. I suspect that had Android not come along, we’d have ended up with a market much more like that of PCs, where one OS heavily dominates, and everything else is niche. 

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