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Google aims for Web developers' hearts and minds

Latest products hint at company's efforts to create a platform on which to build add-on products and services.

Google is taking a page from Microsoft's well-worn playbook for tech industry domination: Rather than just rolling out new products and features, the search giant is trying to win the hearts and minds of Web developers.

Earlier this week, Google introduced Google Talk instant messenger and an upgrade to Google Desktop Search, which adds a product called Sidebar that pulls data from the Net and serves up a personalized panel of information such as e-mail, stock quotes and news.

Both offerings, notably Sidebar, have the potential to lure away current Microsoft users, analysts said. But Google--in a technique perfected long ago at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters--has made software developers an important target audience as well. As with nearly all its services, Google is supporting standards and providing hooks intended to let outside developers create add-on products.

News.context

What's new:
Google's latest services underscore the company's efforts to create a platform on which to build add-on products and services.

Bottom line:
The Internet company is appealing to third-party developers, much the way Microsoft has done with Windows for years. But Google's platform is oriented toward its online services.

More stories on Google

Of course, the ever-widening array of Google products has some people wondering whether the company is out to create the rough equivalent of an operating system. Strictly speaking, Google's products are not a replacement OS, but the collection of tools released thus far serve the same purpose, said analysts. Even products that run on Windows PCs, such as Google's Picasa photo-editing software, could tie back to Google's online services.

"It doesn't seem like they have to deliver an operating system or a browser. They're doing a pretty good job of co-opting what Microsoft has done and putting Google stickers on it," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research.

But longtime Microsoft watchers believe it wasn't just the OS that made Microsoft the most profitable company on the planet. The software titan's vaunted developer-outreach network created a rich "ecosystem" of applications that run on Windows and Office, its desktop application suite, driving adoption of the company's core products.

Some say that's exactly what Google is now trying to re-create on the Web.

Google-eyed over APIs
Nearly all of Google's services are accessible via application programming interfaces, or APIs, which give software developers the documentation needed to build add-on products. For example, the Google Maps API has spawned a cottage industry of creative "mashups" that let people combine information from a source such as apartment listings, and plot that information on a map.

As it has with earlier services, Google supports industry standards in its latest offerings, and it also exposes the functions of its services to outside developers and encourages independent developers and software companies to build clever add-ons.

Rather than create a fenced-off instant messaging client, for example, the search giant released Google Talk, which supports the Jabber standard. That means several different clients, including ones not made by Google, can tap into the service.

In the case of Google Desktop Search, the company has released a number of plug-ins to the Sidebar tool, along with a developer mailing forum, as a way to seed the market. For example, Sidebar users can already replace the standard clock thanks to a Google-made plug-in.

Google declined comment for this story. (Google representatives have instituted a policy of not talking with CNET News.com reporters until July 2006 in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story.)

The Web as development platform
One company in a different industry, yet with a similar philosophy, is Salesforce.com. The company has built a hosted platform, called Sforce, which lets developers customize Salesforce's applications.

As a proof of concept, Salesforce integrated its customer resource management service with Google Maps and is toying with a few other Google services, including AdSense and Sidebar, said Adam Gross, senior director of product marketing for Sforce.

Gross said companies, such as eBay, Yahoo and Amazon.com, that treat their Web sites as customizable platforms, offer a starkly different technology vision to developers than traditional software companies do.

"We are very much competing for the hearts and minds of developers and bringing very different value propositions and ideas," Gross said. "One model says build for Windows and the Microsoft 'stack'; the other says build for the Internet."

Gross noted that some of the software industry's leading lights are working hard on making the Web a platform. Not so surprisingly, some of those high-powered engineers work at Google.

Two well-known former Microsoft development executives--Adam Bosworth and Mark Lucovsky--are now Google employees.

In his personal Web log, Bosworth articulated his belief that the future of software development is on the Web, not on an individual machine.

"The platform of this decade isn't going to be around controlling hardware resources and rich UI (user interfaces). Nor do I think you're going to be able to charge for the platform per se. Instead, it is going to be around access to community, collaboration and content," Bosworth noted in an entry from last year.

Bosworth wrote that Web pioneers such as Amazon.com, Google and eBay have for years made their services available via Web services APIs to encourage third-party applications and drive Web traffic.

Google faces formidable competition from the other Web portal companies, and financial returns from its expanded product line and developer outreach won't be totally clear for some time, said Gartner analyst Allen Weiner.

"It's a logical path," Weiner added, "but we won't know the outcome for a while."