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Google's slow transformation into an open, transparent company

An industry is on the line with Google's move toward openness.

To some, Google has long been a champion of open source, hiring top open-source developers and contributing to a range of open-source projects, in addition to its Summer of Code. To others, Google has been the worst enemy of open source, bumping AGPL-based code of its and only selectively contributing back to the projects like Linux and MySQL from which it derives benefit.

I've been in both camps. One thing is increasingly clear to me, however: Google is opening up to open source.

Earlier this week, I noted its Google I/O Conference, which will serve open source's most important constituency: developers. CNET reporter Steve Shankland writes of Google's Android as "Google's highest-profile attempt so far to use the collaborative programming method to change how computing is done outside the company's walls."

All good. But it's actually Google's promised transparency about its crown jewels--its search algorithms--that makes me think Google is finally ready to truly open up. Perhaps this newfound transparency derives from its 61 percent search market share, but the shift is welcome, if still hesitant:

For something that is used so often by so many people, surprisingly little is known about (search) ranking at Google. This is entirely our fault, and it is by design. We are, to be honest, quite secretive about what we do. There are two reasons for it: competition and abuse. Competition is pretty straightforward. No company wants to share its secret recipes with its competitors. As for abuse, if we make our ranking formulas too accessible, we make it easier for people to game the system. Security by obscurity is never the strongest measure, and we do not rely on it exclusively, but it does prevent a lot of abuse.

The details of the ranking algorithms are in many ways Google's crown jewels. We are very proud of them and very protective of them...But being completely secretive isn't ideal, and this blog post is part of a renewed effort to open up a bit more than we have in the past.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, Google will actually open, but I trust its track record on living up to its word more than Microsoft's, which also went through a flurry of "We're now really open!" announcements lately that actually netted the industry...not much.

Without intending to sound melodramatic, an industry is on the line with Google's move toward openness. Google can demonstrate that the 21st century belongs to those companies that interoperate best, that embrace open source, open data, and open standards, and to those companies that win because of superior service, not superior lock-in. Microsoft won the last century's software wars. We can't afford to let anyone else win on those terms.