Why Google isn’t open about its “openness”

December 22, 2009

Why Google isn't open about its "openness"A senior Google executive has claimed that “open systems win” in a memo to staff. But Jonathan Rosenberg also insists Google will never share details of exactly how its search indexing works.

Rosenberg, the firm’s head of product management, has published the memo on a company blog. He puts forward a detailed argument as to why open systems are best for all concerned, using the analogy that sharing confidential details about technology may mean a firm is left with a smaller share of the pie, that if the info being out there makes the pie much bigger, the firm is still better off.

He also launches a clear attack on Apple, noting the iPod and iPhone range as examples of how closed technology can produce excellent short-term results but soon leads to a firm only being able to make minor improvements rather than an entire industry creating better products.

The memo goes on to state that Google is the largest open source contributor in the world, having shared more than 20 million lines of code across 800 projects including Chrome and Android.

However, Rosenberg then concedes that not everything about Google is open:

While we are committed to opening the code for our developer tools, not all Google products are open source. Our goal is to keep the Internet open, which promotes choice and competition and keeps users and developers from getting locked in. 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. The search and advertising markets are already highly competitive with very low switching costs, so users and advertisers already have plenty of choice and are not locked in. Not to mention the fact that opening up these systems would allow people to “game” our algorithms to manipulate search and ads quality rankings, reducing our quality for everyone.

The problem with Rosenberg’s arguments is that when you look closely at what is and isn’t open about Google, it’s the money rather than the principle, which appears to be the most consistent factor. When it comes to operating systems, both for desktop and mobile, Google can afford to produce free and open-source material because there’s no hope of challenging Microsoft with a closed-source commercial system unless you tie it to hardware like Apple does. But when it comes to producing an effective search engine, and more importantly selling advertising on the back of it, Google has billions to lose if any other firm was able to duplicate or even improve on its systems.

Having a policy of being open when you can but protecting the bottom line is perfectly logical for a huge corporation. But portraying that as a primarily ethical rather than commercial policy is misleading.

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