Google throws bodies at OpenOffice

With rival Microsoft in mind, the search giant will hire people to work on the open-source software suite.

Google plans to hire programmers to improve, a demonstration of its affinity for open source initiatives and one the company believes also shows sound practical sense.

OpenOffice has its roots in Sun Microsystems' StarOffice suite of programs. Five years ago, Sun turned its proprietary software into an open-source project. Only recently, however, has the competitor to Microsoft's Office attracted serious attention.

Now Google believes it can help OpenOffice--perhaps working to pare down the software's memory requirements or its mammoth 80MB download size, said Chris DiBona, manager for open-source programs at the search company.


What's new:
Google plans to hire programmers to improve, an open-source software suite that competes with Microsoft's Office.

Bottom line:
The move strengthens the search giant's ties to open-source development. But Google also has business reasons to justify its embrace of OpenOffice, which competes directly with a Microsoft product.

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"We want to hire a couple of folks to help make OpenOffice better," DiBona said.

Google has shown an affinity for open-source software, which are programs developed in the open and available for free. Many of the company's programmers came of age in the open-source era, so advancing the open-source agenda comes naturally, DiBona said. But the company also has business reasons to justify its open-source embrace.

"We use a fair amount of open-source software at Google. We want to make sure that's a healthy community. And we want to make sure open source preserves competitiveness within the industry," he said.

Earlier in October, Google and Sun announced a partnership to boost several software projects, but released few details. Asked about OpenOffice collaboration, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said at the time only that the search engine power would "work to make the distribution of (OpenOffice) more broad." But OpenOffice, like the other software projects the partners intend to work on, competes directly with Microsoft software--a point that has not gone unnoticed.

As one of the most-watched companies in the industry, Google's involvement has helped Sun draw attention to And there are other reasons the software is taken more seriously as an alternative to Microsoft Office. For one thing, 2.0 was just released with a modernized interface and some new features. For another, supports OpenDocument, a standardized file format that many endorse as a way to break the lock-in of Microsoft's proprietary formats.

DiBona didn't mention a wider competitive perspective in giving Google's rationale for investing time and money on nonproprietary software. "We were looking for ways to work with Sun and ways to help users. This is a good place to spend some resources," he said.

Google's heavy use of open-source software for its operations has kept its developers in touch with cutting-edge technology, but the do-it-yourself approach has also meant that its employees have technology maintenance responsibilities that most companies leave to others.

Some believe Google eventually will have to settle with a more conventional approach: buying technology instead of building it in-house. Among them is Brian Stevens, chief technology officer of Linux seller Red Hat. He said many customers began with their own versions of Linux before turning to Red Hat for support.

"With most customers, we have a relationship that started that way. Every financial services company, the Department of Energy--almost everyone got Linux in a nonstandard way on their own," Stevens said. But Google probably won't keep its in-house Linux version, he predicted. "That's not where their competence is. They've got a lot of other problems than building Linux distributions."

A peek under the hood
Google is notoriously reluctant to describe the particulars of its search-computing data center, which served the demands of 380 million people in August. But DiBona did discuss some details.

The company uses the Linux operating system for its mainstay search

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