Google could not exist without open source software: licensing costs would be prohibitive if it had based its business on proprietary applications. Moreover, free software gives it the possibility to customise and optimise its code – crucially important in terms of becoming and staying top dog in the highly-competitive search market.
But if it's evident that Google receives a lot from open source, how much flows the other way is less clear.
That's what makes this document from by Jonathan Rosenberg, Google's Senior Vice President, Product Management, emailed to all Googlers, all the more fascinating. It's called “The meaning of open", and it represents an official statement of what exactly Google thinks it's doing as far as openness is concerned – and why it is doing it. As the introductory paragraphs explains:
The topic of open seems to be coming up a lot lately at Google. I've been in meetings where we're discussing a product and someone says something to the effect that we should be more open. Then a debate ensues which reveals that even though most everyone in the room believes in open we don't necessarily agree on what it means in practice.
This is happening often enough for me to conclude that we need to lay out our definition of open in clear terms that we can all understand and support. What follows is that definition based on my experiences at Google and the input of several colleagues. We run the company and make our product decisions based on these principles, so I encourage you to carefully read, review, and debate them. Then own them and try to incorporate them into your work.
The fact that “the topic of open” – something that has always been at the heart of Google, at least in terms of its computing infrastructure – is now surfacing in these kinds of discussions shows how the company is developing from one implicitly based on openness to one that explicitly recognises that fact. This makes Google a good example of how open source software is beginning to “infect” - in the nicest possible way – a company's thinking across the board. As readers of this blog will know, I see this as one of the most important trends at the moment, and it's significant that Google has noticed it.
Rosenberg distinguishes two key types of openness within his company:
There are two components to our definition of open: open technology and open information. Open technology includes open source, meaning we release and actively support code that helps grow the Internet, and open standards, meaning we adhere to accepted standards and, if none exist, work to create standards that improve the entire Internet (and not just benefit Google). Open information means that when we have information about users we use it to provide something that is valuable to them, we are transparent about what information we have about them, and we give them ultimate control over their information. These are the things we should be doing. In many cases we aren't there, but I hope that with this note we can start working to close the gap between reality and aspiration.
The rest of the email explores these two aspects. Open technology is split up further into open standards and open source:
Today, we base our developer products on open standards because interoperability is a critical element of user choice. What does this mean for Google Product Managers and Engineers? Simple: whenever possible, use existing open standards. If you are venturing into an area where open standards don't exist, create them. If existing standards aren't as good as they should be, work to improve them and make those improvements as simple and well documented as you can. Our top priorities should always be users and the industry at large and not just the good of Google, and you should work with standards committees to make our changes part of the accepted specification.