Could open source abandon the Google train?

Google has long been a friend and partner to a variety of open-source communities, but its growing power and patent policies may fracture the amity.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

As arguably the world's largest open-source company, Google has a big stake in maintaining its place at the heart of the open-source ecosystem. Recent events, however, suggest that Google can't rest on its laurels if it wants to secure the hearts and minds of open-source developers.

Make no mistake: Google needs those developers. Android, Chrome (and Chrome OS), and other Google initiatives depend upon fostering vibrant open-source communities that can help it to surpass Microsoft and Apple.

Does Google need to search for new friends?
Such communities may be ready to cut the Google umbilical cord, however, which should be worrying to Google.

There have been rumblings that Mozilla would look to Google alternatives for the default search engine within Firefox, despite Mozilla pulling in 91 percent of its revenues from its Google partnership. Mozilla employee Asa Dotzler, though not speaking for the foundation, says that he'd welcome a switch from Google given its rising dominance over the Web.

Mozilla executive Mitchell Baker, for her part, has noted that alternatives (Yahoo, Microsoft) would likely pay Mozilla more money and give Firefox shelter from Google, which has been building a rival browser, Chrome.

If Mozilla needs a nudge, Canonical just gave it one, defaulting to Yahoo search for future versions of its popular Ubuntu Linux operating system.

Mozilla and Canonical represent the heart of the open-source community. If they move from Google, it paves the way for other communities to do so, too.

Mozilla and Canonical arguably have their financial self-interest at heart in such deals, but Gartner Research Vice President Brian Prentice points out an even bigger issue that could drive a wedge between Google and the wider open-source community:


Google, after all, was recently granted a patent on its MapReduce parallel programming model. This puts the Apache Software Foundation Hadoop project firmly in its sights, even if Google likely has no intention to sue. It's the uncertainty that may end up hurting the open-source community.

[T]he greatest threat to any open system is, in fact, uncertainty. And what Google has done here is to dump a whole lot of uncertainty onto the market.
--Brian Prentice, Gartner

Prentice queries whether

So, does that mean that it's only a matter of time before Google's legal team starts sending out letters seeking license fees? I don't know. And that's the point. No one else does either.

I would suggest to you all that the greatest threat to any open system is, in fact, uncertainty. And what Google has done here is to dump a whole lot of uncertainty onto the market.

To those asking Google to submit such patents to a commons to ensure they are only used for defensive purposes, Google's response, as Prentice goes on, effectively amounts to "trust us - after all we're not evil."

Don't get me wrong: Google is and will likely remain a very strong proponent of open-source software, with projects like Chrome that impress and push the boundaries of innovation.

But in its rush to serve a wide variety of customer needs, it may end up overlooking or stepping on its erstwhile partners (like Mozilla), and could pursue policies (like its MapReduce patent or even its H.264 video codec stance) that threaten the open-source community just as much as Microsoft has.

Google is powerful, but it still needs friends. Open source has been a chief ally of Google to date. Will it remain such? That's an open question.