09 January 2006

Google: Friend or Foe?

"Don't Be Evil" is the company motto: but is Google for us or against us?

I'm not talking about justifable concerns that it knows far too much about what interests us - both in terms of the searches we carry out and (if we use Gmail) the correspondence we send and receive. This is a larger issue, and relates to all the major online companies - Microsoft, Yahoo, even Amazon - that mediate and hence participate in much of our lives. What concerns me here is whether Google can be considered a friend of openness.

On the one hand, Google is quite simply the biggest open source company. Its fabled server farm consists of 10,000s/100,000s/1,000,000s (delete as applicable) of GNU/Linux boxes; this means that anyone searching with Google is a GNU/Linux user.

It has a growing list of code that it has open-sourced; it has sponsored budding hackers in its Summer of Code programme; and it keeps on acquiring key open source hackers like Guido van Rossum (inventor of Python) and Ben Goodger, (Firefox lead engineer).

On the other hand, Google's software is heavily weighted towards Microsoft Windows. Programs like Google Earth and Picasa are only available under Windows, and its latest, most ambitious foray, the Google Pack, is again only for Microsoft's operating system. This means that every time Google comes out with some really cool software, it is reinforcing Microsoft's hold on the desktop. Indeed, we are fast approaching the point where the absence of GNU/Linux versions of Google's programs are a major disincentive to adopt an open source desktop.

This dilemma is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, since Google clearly wants to serve the largest desktop market first, while drawing on the amazing price-performance of free software for its own computing platform.

But there is another area where it has the chance to play nice with openness, one that does not require it to come down definitively on one side or the other of the operating system world.

Another Windows-only product, Google Talk, is the subject of a lawsuit alleging patent infringement. However, closer examination of the two patents concerned, Patent Number 5,425,085 - "Least cost routing device for separate connection into phone line" - and Patent Number 5,519,769 - "Method and system for updating a call rating database", suggests that one of the best ways Google could show that it is a friend of both open source and proprietary software is by defending itself vigorously in the hope that the US Patent system might start to be applied as it was originally envisioned, to promote innovation, not as an easy way of extracting money from wealthy companies.

Update 1: Google has come out with a Mac version of Google Earth. It's a start.

Update 2: There are rumours about Google working on its own desktop GNU/Linux. Frankly, I'll believe it when I see it: it's a poor fit with their current portfolio, and the margins are terrible.

Update 3
: Comfortingly, these rumours have now been scotched.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post. Totally on the spot.

As an update from this weeks' news, I love how the blog ValleyRag -- I mean ValleyWag -- parses the difference between the real and often mis-quoted Google motto.


Look, can we just get this right? "Do no evil" is an absolute. One evil act breaks it. "Don't be evil," isn't that a lot easier to reach? Like, Google could go out and drown, say, one puppy. ONE puppy.

That's an evil thing to do, okay, whatever, but Google could be really sorry. And it'd be all "Aw, that was evil, but here's a new toy! It messages AND e-mails!" And that makes up for it. So Google is still, on balance, good.

So it's a matter of not being *entirely* evil, apparently. This issue make so much more sense to me now that I've considered it: Google is more like Kofi Annan than Obi Wan.

When I saw how many papers had reported Google's motto as being "Do NO evil," (none at all) it really clicked for me: We all want Google to be the white knight ... but that just ain't good for the margins).

Glyn Moody said...

Interestingly, when I first wrote this entry I got the quotation wrong - confirming your suspicion that we really, really want Google to "do no evil". Alas, it looks like we'll have to settle for the watered-down version....

Anonymous said...

That is so great!
It's also possible to run python in parallel on SMP: Parallel Python