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Why Google loves open source

Google derives great benefits from open source, but also increasingly appreciates that it must contribute back to attain these benefits.

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
2 min read

Google has been a huge beneficiary of open source over the years, building its infrastructure on the freely available software. But it has only been in the past year that Google has gone on a serious open-source charm offensive, both contributing actively to open-source projects and calling out its significant contributions to open-source projects: over one million lines of code each year in addition to serving as a host to over 160,000 open-source projects.

Now Alan Noble, head of Engineering for Google in Australia and New Zealand, has called out the various benefits Google derives from open source:

At Google, we love open source for a few reasons. First, it speeds innovation. Open source lowers the barrier to entry for users, website owners, and application developers. It means there can be another Google, or another Yahoo!, started from someone's garage in Auckland or Arhus with very little capital required, because the building blocks for success are freely available.

It also reduces inefficiency. In the past, developers wasted time and resources to write web code to cover basic functions common to most websites-like registration pages.

Nowadays, thanks to open code-sharing initiatives, developers don't need to waste time reinventing the wheel. Moreover, as more sharing of code occurs, weaker solutions are weeded out in favor of more robust models.

And finally, it makes economic sense. Although it may sound counterintuitive to give something away for free, the resulting popularity and innovation pays off....We quickly realised that making our code freely available would encourage innovation and new products, and by extension, increase use of our maps. Today, Google benefits by letting thousands of developers around the world innovate on and extend the reach of our products; those developers benefit by never having to build or pay for a platform on which to build.

I used to chide Google for not contributing more actively to open-source projects. No more. The company has resolved that deficiency, and then some. It has become one of the greatest beneficiaries of the open-source development community: a company to be trusted to "not be evil" with regard to open source.

Perhaps that's because Google apparently recognizes that open source isn't something to be strip-mined. For open source to succeed, it must be made into a renewable resource. That means contributing back. It means respecting the community and feeding it.

Google groks this. The next phase is to convince enterprise IT to contribute back, too, as it is the group most in need of the cost savings, innovation, and efficiency that open source can provide. Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has been calling for greater enterprise IT participation in open-source communities. Let's hope they listen.