Google's Open-Source Manifesto Tells the Truth

Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice-president of product management at Google (GOOG), put up on Dec. 21 what was more of a tome than a mere post on the company's blog. Entitled "The Meaning of Open," it was originally sent to Google employees as an e-mail, but it reads like a manifesto. Arguments have raged for years about exactly what is entailed by an open-technology strategy, as opposed to a closed one. 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, whose source code we can view and change. Rosenberg's open manifesto goes well beyond the concept of open-source software, however, in that he goes on to tackle open standards, the value of an open Internet, and the overall concept of open information. He writes: "To understand our position in more detail, it helps to start with the assertion that open systems win. This is counterintuitive 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." "Open" doesn't mean altruisticWhile 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, 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 operating system is spreading to other devices. Let's not get snookered here. Although Google has published Android's source code, the company wants Android and applications that run on top of it to steer as many users as possible to Google's lucrative search-and-ad ecosystems. Those ecosystems are 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 is that he confesses 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. But I don't believe for a second that Google approaches the concept of openness without considering its self-interest. Make no mistake: Google preserves openness because openness serves Google.

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