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Google throws bodies at OpenOffice

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

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Google plans to hire programmers to improve OpenOffice.org, 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 OpenOffice.org, 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 OpenOffice.org. And there are other reasons the software is taken more seriously as an alternative to Microsoft Office. For one thing, OpenOffice.org 2.0 was just released with a modernized interface and some new features. For another, OpenOffice.org 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

service, he said. Its Linux core begins not with software from a company such as Red Hat, or Novell's Suse Linux, but rather from the version that project leader Linus Torvalds posts periodically to the kernel.org Web site.

Among the open-source technologies used by Google are the Python programming language and the MySQL database, he said. In addition, Google's Blogger site uses Apache Web server software and the Tomcat package for running Java programs on the server.

The GCC compiler software, used to create nearly every open-source program in existence, also is widely used at Google.

Sun's Java also figures prominently, even though it's not open-source at its center. "We make great use of Java at the company," DiBona said, including for Gmail. The company claims the Web-based e-mail service has millions of subscribers.

Sun hasn't released the fundamental part of Java--the virtual machine component--as open-source software. However, the Apache Software Foundation is working on an open-source Java effort called Project Harmony

, an initiative that now has IBM developer support.

"I think they'll succeed wildly," DiBona said of Harmony. "They're so good at this. They say, 'We're going to write this software,' and it gets done."

Despite Google's liking for open-source software, plenty of programming at the company is proprietary.

"We're never going to open-source PageRank," DiBona said, referring to the algorithm the company uses to choose which search results to present. "It's the thing that makes Google Google."

Open-source output
Google isn't only an open-source software consumer. It's an open-source producer as well: For example, employees submit software to the Apache Axis Web services project, DiBona said.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company also employs some open-source notables:

• Sean Egan, leader of the GAIM project for instant messaging software;

• Alex Martelli, a leading Python developer;

• Greg Stein, the Apache Software Foundation chairman and a manager of the Subversion source code management software.

• And Ben Goodger, the lead programmer of the Firefox Web browser project, as well as a few other Firefox programmers.

Google also has published several open-source projects, including tools for debugging software, improving its performance, monitoring MySQL databases and using the AJAX software for richer Web page interfaces.

But so far, there is a significant limit to the group-programming facet of Google's projects: The company doesn't yet accept outside contributions.

Some developers have offered the company contributions meant to improve Google's open-source software--for example, to add 64-bit support to 32-bit software. That cooperation is awkward right now for reasons relating to intellectual-property control, DiBona said.

"We've been slow in being able to accept outside patches," he said. But the company is working on a contributor license that lays out patent and copyright terms for outside contributors. "It's something that pays to be very, very careful about."

The company has helped outside open-source projects, though. Through a $2 million program called the Google Summer of Code, the company sponsored 400 college-age students to work on open-source projects last summer. Each got $4,500 if they met their goals, which 84 percent did. Another $500 went to each of the several open-source projects that helped organize the effort, DiBona said.

Open-source software is good for young programmers, DiBona said, noting that it gives them real-world problems to solve and teaches them self-management skills.

"We think open-source is pretty important," DiBona said. "Without it, the industry would not be as good as it is now to newcomers."