Google--not necessarily 'more open than thou'

Google likes to make much of its openness, but the truth is that its business strategy is not dissimilar to what others are using. Google is simply better at open on-ramps and closed exits.

Can you find the openness in Google Search?

Google is perhaps the world's largest open-source company . That does not, however, make it the most open. Not even if Google says it's so.

The company is fond of believing itself different. And perhaps it is. For all of its stumbles over privacy concerns, it's still the company that insists it will "not be evil." I give its executives the benefit of the doubt that it really does want to be open, as revealed in a blog published Monday by Senior Vice President Jonathan Rosenberg.

But the irony of Google's position is that it's very open...until it needs to make a buck. Or a billion of them. At that point it's just as closed as its competitors. Perhaps more so.

Rosenberg doesn't shy away from the inconsistency, arguing that Google is closed when it's for its customers' own good:

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.

Am I the only one that just had Napoleon of "Animal Farm" flash through their minds while reading that statement? Some animals are more equal than others, and some companies know better than others when to keep code closed.

It's not that Rosenberg is wrong. It's just that his embarrassment at admitting Google likes the revenue that results from closed systems ties his arguments up in knots, as Gartner's Brian Prentice highlights:

I don't think Rosenberg is making any attempt to mislead. I think he's thinking out loud and trying to reconcile the paradox he's created for himself--that open systems win even though Google's success is so clearly the result of being strategically closed.

Prentice adds further color:

The truth is that closed systems still win. Open systems, practically speaking, are basically good for making others lose.

The art of business in the 21st century is figuring out how to open up your suppliers' and competitors' business while keeping yours tightly sealed. And in that endeavor Google has proven highly successful.

From Red Hat to Facebook, from Google to Microsoft, from MySQL to Oracle, the same lesson applies : openness is exceptional for creating developer interest, lead generation, and many other things, but some element of proprietary still pays the bills. The big ones, anyway.

No exceptions.

Google is a fantastic company that groks the strategic benefits of openness better than most, and certainly better than its lumbering counterpart in Redmond .

But it's not exceptional in understanding open on-ramps and closed exits. Other important businesses like IBM have been leveraging such principles for years (even before Hewlett-Packard's Martin Fink explained the strategy in "The Business and Economics of Linux and Open Source").

Google isn't original with the business strategy. It's just better at it than most. It's open...until closed takes over to pay the bills.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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