The worst decision Google ever made

The worst decision Google ever made

Summary: Oracle's Java-based lawsuit could make things expensive for Google. By missing the chance to own Java, however, Google lost an opportunity to have a platform that could serve as a counter to Microsoft and Apple.


Oracle paid $7.4 billion to buy Sun Microsystems, the formerly high-flying maker of server computers running Unix, back in 2009. Many wondered back then whether Google was in the running. They certainly had the cash, though the big question was why Google would want a maker of Unix servers that most pundits thought was long past its prime.

Of course, now that Oracle owns the patents and copyrights related to Java (a technology originally created by Sun), they have gone after Google with a greedy vengeance, chasing the revenue potential to be found in Google's use of Java in Android. With the real possibility that Oracle could win billions, both in terms of immediate penalties and from ongoing fees derived from the growing success of the Android platform, $7.4 billion would have been a bargain for Google.

Oracle's push to derive revenue from Android isn't the only reason Google should have bought Sun. Rather, it was a strategic error that deprives Google of a standard software development platform at a time when the platform landscape is in flux, shaken in recent years by a device revolution that has driven Apple - and Android - to new heights.

To be fair, mergers have a long history of going horribly wrong. Microsoft is often the poster child for this, which was part of the reason I opposed Microsoft's attempted purchase of Yahoo. The WebTV purchase eventually led to Microsoft IPTV / Mediaroom, though only if you think "lead" means to take 8+ years to get to a point where you have a viable IPTV platform built around technology that was at right angles to other TV and video-related efforts at the company. The textbook case of a failed merger, however, is surely Microsoft's $500 million purchase of Danger, a company co-founded by Andy Rubin, the guy who now manages Android at Google. Danger's resources were focused entirely on the ill-fated KIN, a device that was a distraction at a time when Microsoft should have had a laser focus on Windows Phone 7.

Mergers don't always run off the rails. Google's purchase of YouTube for $1 billion can be labeled a success. Granted, bandwidth costs make it very hard for Google to make a profit from YouTube, but YouTube's status as the de facto source of Internet video has surely given Google opportunities in other areas. Access to YouTube is an essential feature in both IP-enabled televisions and smartphones.

And, though Stephen J. Vaughn surely disagrees, I think Skype could prove a good purchase. It's hard to build a brand that people associate with voice and video communications as strong as Skype, and the fact that the Skype protocol is strange matters to end users about as much as the twists in the plumbing snaking through their walls. I think Skype, potentially, could offer the same advantages to Microsoft that YouTube offers to Google, at least in the realm of audio and video communications. Of course, between potentiality and actuality there are chasms filled with rocks and alligators, so we'll see how things proceed.

A Google purchase of Sun Microsystems would have served as a big boost to Google's software platform ambitions. Solaris probably mattered little to Google, and perhaps could have been spun off to a company who cared more about custom hardware (Oracle being a prime candidate). Sun's software was what really mattered, and the software Sun created or owned would have given them a strong development API that rivals .NET or Objective-C / Cocoa that was fully owned by them, as well have provided a strong office productivity suite that could be augmented to complement their online word processing tools in unique ways. Those two aspects would be real weapons against Microsoft, striking as they did at the core of the Microsoft revenue machine (the Windows platform, and Office).

Had Google owned Java, Google could have given it a special place as an API, helping to boost popularity of an already popular technology. Most programmers emerging from computer science departments have strong familiarity with the platform, and Java has a strong presence in multiple industry segments, from servers through televisions and mobile devices. Google certainly wouldn't cease to support other development technologies, or stop pushing web interfaces as the way to make client applications. However, even on the client, there is still much value to be derived from locally-resident applications. Andy Rubin and the Android team understood that, which is why they chose Java as a development technology and not a wrapper around HTML / CSS / Javascript, as Palm did with Web OS.

The timing for such a positioning couldn't have been better. Microsoft is currently on the back foot in both phones and tablets. The platforms that have come to define the future of computing aren't emerging from Microsoft labs.

Further, Microsoft is preparing for a major evolution in their UI strategy that has put strain on their normally strong relations with developers. Microsoft's recent unveiling of concepts underpinning its new Windows 8 excited a lot of people. The opening screen will support applications written in HTML, CSS and Javascript, which is quite interesting and an important step forward. Windows developers, however, noticed the omission of any mention of .NET, creating the impression that .NET applications wouldn't be first-class citizens on the new Windows 8 desktop. Incomprehensibly, Microsoft refuses to confirm or deny whether this is, in fact, the case.

Perhaps, as many have noted, this is all a colossal bit of miscommunication. Yet, Microsoft is normally quite good at developer communications, making this "misstep" out of character, lending credence to the notion that they are seriously contemplating orphaning aspect of their .NET client story. As Tim Anderson at The Register recently stated, "From the outside, it still looks as if Microsoft's Server and Tools division is pulling one way, and the Windows team the other." As a former Microsoft employee, I always found it astounding how poorly different product teams cooperated with each other. The fears of the .NET development community seems well placed.

Microsoft's pain, however, could have been Google's gain. Internecine struggles at its Redmond-based competitor would present a golden opportunity, had Google owned a platform they could present as an alternative.

Google wants to be the platform for the Internet age. Its focus on browsers is part of that, but clearly, the success of Android moves the focus even more firmly in Google's direction. Every platform company needs a standard API. Apple has Objective-C and Cocoa. Microsoft has .NET, even if they have a hard time forcing internal teams to hew the line on that. Google could have had Java. Given the generally favorable impression the open source community has of Google, they could have directed development efforts atop Java in directions useful to Google.

A similar analysis applies to OpenOffice, an open source word processing suite that Sun bought in 1999 under the StarOffice name.

To be frank, OpenOffice hasn't made much of a dent in the dominance of Microsoft Office. That, however, doesn't mean it isn't a useful tool to help to erode the importance of a product that is a source of a large share of Microsoft revenue. Owning the copyrights to Open Office would give them the power to guide its development to align with Google's cloud-based document editing tools. It would give them a strong suite of offline business productivity tools, and as with Java, Google would likely have had considerable success in steering the community down a path that aligns well with Google's cloud strategy.

Google is certainly not going to fall over from any settlement, forced or otherwise, with Oracle. However, the fact that the owner of Java is an antagonist makes it less likely Google will standardize in any real way on Java. That's a shame, as Java is good technology that would benefit from a big company like Google backing it with real money.

It took nearly a decade for .NET to entrench itself in any real way as the standard platform for Windows development...and even then, it still hasn't completely displaced traditional WIN32. Objective-C and Cocoa has been around even longer by way of NextStep. It takes time, in other words, to establish a platform. Quite simply, Google won't have time to make a real alternative on its own. Their only chance was with Java, and that chance was missed.

Topics: Software Development, Android, Google, Microsoft, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

    If I go to an Internet site and a Java application starts to come up, I just click off of it and go somewhere else. Isn't it time for a light weight replacement for Java - maybe modern day Javascript?
    • Um, Java's usefulness has nothing to do with your web browser

      @weblite Java developers are busy making middleware in the enterprise, apps for Android and Blackberry phones, and services on the web on Apache Tomcat.... your web browser's not really a factor in that, and hasn't been for about ten years.

      And no - nobody anywhere at any time will be using Javascript for these or any other enterprise-level purposes.
      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

        @rbethell Java != Javascript. But other than that yes. I believe it's a typo based on the rest of your post.
      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

        @snoop0x7b - you did read my comment, right? I talked about all the stuff Java does do, and then say that Javascript won't do it. I think it fairly obvious I didn't conflate the two!
      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

        @rbethell I have one word for you: node.js

        Welcome to the future.
    • Not saying we should go back to Applets

      The web is the web, it should use HTML / CSS / Javascript. Android apps, however, aren't applets. And no, Javascript is a scripting language that isn't typesafe. Great glue. Don't try to build a mansion using only glue, though.

      On the server, Java is very powerful stuff. Making good Google-friendly Java frameworks for server development would also be useful...had they owned the Java platform.
      John Carroll
      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

        @John Carroll Why not? Applets got a bad rap because they where abused for things like buttons. The slow startup time has more to do with the fact that Java wasn't preloaded and the speed of dial up back in the day. Applets could be used for web applications that do not fit in well with HTML 5 and javascript's way of doing things. Most of Java's bad rap has to do with older version and just plain regurgitation. Just as Flash is very often abused by talentless hacks for things like buttons so was Java. I hate the idea of throwing out what is a useful tool because of ingnorance. Java on the Mac was very good and Java could make the Chrome OS even better.
      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

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      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

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    • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

      Javascript cannot replace Java. I suspect that a at least some of the backend of the sites you visits has Java running the show. You will not find a finer crossplatform server side environment than java.
  • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

    I still think that if you buy a patent portfolio you should not be able to bring claims against others. Protect yourself, yes, go on offense, no. Oracle is looking for cash flows to supplant its position in an increasingly competitive market instead of innovating.
    • I'm no fan of software patents

      ...and have written extensively about why I think they are wrong. That doesn't change the fact that Google should have done everything in its power to get control of the Java platform. It's a missed opportunity that isn't likely to re-present itself.
      John Carroll
      • Yet Oracle owns what it owns and only Oracle decides what to do with it, ..

        @John Carroll: ... including suing others. Unless this is not communism, there is notion of property and ownership, and it is perfectly good and right for Oracle to sue.

        Google already was caught in big scale IP theft with its stakes/context advertisement technology, where not only idea, but the base code itself was ripped off. Yahoo bought the original developer and Goodle had to arrange out-of course settlement valued at $2.5 billion back in 2004.

        However, this time nothing threatening to Google might happen. Even if the court would award Oracle few-billion dollar worth of penalties to be paid from Google, then still these kind of money is not problem at all.
      • A perfect example

        @John Carroll ...of why we can't trust a company when they say "we own the patent, but go ahead and use it because we won't sue". What Oracle has done is given ammunition to the FOSSers.
      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

        @John Carroll Agreed, it was a missed opportunity that I'm sure they are regretting today.

        In the mean time, as a world community, can we all just agree to bury Oracle and all the things that they tainted and turned into trash?
      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

        @DeRSSS...ownership of ideas is about as much a fabrication of government as it is possible to get. Hate government? Why are you so in love with the notion of a process that costs $20K+, involves legions of examiner-bureaucrats analyzing what ideas get patented, then gives them a 20 year monopoly?

        It's perfectly good and right for Oracle to sue just like it is perfectly good and right for people to sleep with 12 year olds in countries where it is legal to do so. No, I'm not supporting sleeping with 12 year olds. But, in some countries, that is perfectly legal. By your "argument," the law is the final arbiter of justice and goodness. I'm pointing out that the laws are made by us, and there are such things as bad and destructive laws that people hide behind as they do evil things like try to sue a successful company into revenue submission.
        John Carroll
      • For now, everything besides law is just opionated point of view -- it does

        @John Carroll: ... not have much weight, alas.<br><br>Oracle paid its own hard-earned money for Sun, so there is no way to state that "evil anti-freedom Oracle just wants to hurt the poor lover of freedom Google", which earns quite money already, pushing these endless blinking advertisements on users of Android phones, where almost none of downloaded applications cost money, thus being advertisement-supported.<br><br>Sorry, but I somehow do not see Google neither as "poor" -- in any sense -- nor as especially "freedom-loving". Just regular love for money, the same as in Oracle (Apple, et cetera) -- except for the latter does not cover it in more popular make-up.
      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

        @DeRSSS No, Google is a company, and will step on smaller ones to get ahead. But they aren't a company that tends to litigate based on patents. Saint, no, but what Oracle is doing is plain wrong.

        Yes, they "paid" for an artificial government grant of monopoly. Doesn't make the patents they are using a just exercise of government power, or somehow a burned-in essential notion of the free market system.

        Ads are a much more respectable source of revenue than patent litigation.
        John Carroll
      • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

        @John Carroll
        Sun released Java as GPL in 2007. Oracle has no basis for its lawsuit. Why should Google pay for something that has already been freely released? Smart move by Google, dumb move by Oracle.
        linux for me
  • RE: The worst decision Google ever made

    Considering Schmidt and a number of his team were ex Sun, creator's of the Java platform and real heavy Java evangelists, there really is something amiss.