Google delivers open system treatise: Do you buy it?

Google delivered a treatise on open systems that explains the search giant's strategy to managers, delivers a few jabs at rivals and lays out the landscape. The big question: Do you buy into Google's open system religion and trust the company as a steward?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice president of product management at Google, delivered a treatise on open systems that explains the search giant's strategy to managers, delivers a few jabs at rivals and lays out the landscape. The big question: Do you buy into Google's open system religion and trust the company as a steward?

Rosenberg's uber memo, posted on Google's blog, is worth a read. It revolves around an internal (not to mention eternal) debate at Google: How open should a company be and what the definition of 'open' in practice?

Google's definition of open systems:

There are two components to our definition of open: open technology and open information. Open technology includes open source, meaning we release and actively support code that helps grow the Internet, and open standards, meaning we adhere to accepted standards and, if none exist, work to create standards that improve the entire Internet (and not just benefit Google). Open information means that when we have information about users we use it to provide something that is valuable to them, we are transparent about what information we have about them, and we give them ultimate control over their information. These are the things we should be doing. In many cases we aren't there, but I hope that with this note we can start working to close the gap between reality and aspiration.

That definition always looks good on paper, but I suspect at many companies a commitment to open is uncomfortable. In many respects, a commitment to open systems is a leap of faith. You think it's a good long-term move, but in the short run you're not sure.

Rosenberg outlines the conundrum:

To understand our position in more detail, it helps to start with the assertion that open systems win. This is counter-intuitive to the traditionally trained MBA who is taught to generate a sustainable competitive advantage by creating a closed system, making it popular, then milking it through the product life cycle. The conventional wisdom goes that companies should lock in customers to lock out competitors. There are different tactical approaches — razor companies make the razor cheap and the blades expensive, while the old IBM made the mainframes expensive and the software ... expensive too. Either way, a well-managed closed system can deliver plenty of profits. They can also deliver well-designed products in the short run — the iPod and iPhone being the obvious examples — but eventually innovation in a closed system tends towards being incremental at best (is a four blade razor really that much better than a three blade one?) because the whole point is to preserve the status quo. Complacency is the hallmark of any closed system. If you don't have to work that hard to keep your customers, you won't.

By this point in the memo, I'm thinking of Google and search. Does its sheer girth represent a closed system? Are we locked into Google (the answer is no objectively, but perhaps yes based on habit)? Can you meld a series of open systems and products together in a way that makes it a closed system in terms of profitability?

That last question, which doesn't have an answer per se, comes to mind again later in the memo when Rosenberg writes:

Because of our reach, technical know-how, and lust for big projects, we can take on big challenges that require large investments and lack an obvious, near-term pay-off. We can photograph the world's streets so that you can explore the neighborhood around an apartment you are considering renting from a thousand miles away. We can scan millions of books and make them widely accessible (while respecting the rights of publishers and authors). We can create an email system that gives away a gigabyte of storage (now over 7 gigs) at a time when all other services allow only a small fraction of that amount. We can instantly translate web pages from any of 51 languages. We can process search data to help public health agencies detect flu outbreaks much earlier. We can build a faster browser (Chrome), a better mobile operating system (Android), and an entirely new communications platform (Wave), and then open them up for the world to build upon, customize, and improve.

We can do these things because they are information problems and we have the computer scientists, technology, and computational power to solve them. When we do, we make numerous platforms - video, maps, mobile, PCs, voice, enterprise - better, more competitive, and more innovative. We are often attacked for being too big, but sometimes being bigger allows us to take on the impossible.

All of this is useless, however, if we fail when it comes to being open.

The rub: If Google navigates open systems faster and better than anyone else, knits together a series of open projects---Android, Wave and Chrome---it could create a de facto closed system in total. How? No one else will be able to compete. Google will reap outsized rewards from a series of open projects.

Rosenberg adds that Google can use open systems for the forces of good---more about don't be evil etc.---but it's tough to completely buy in given the search company's size. Rosenberg adds:

There are forces aligned against the open Internet — governments who control access, companies who fight in their own self-interests to preserve the status quo. They are powerful, and if they succeed we will find ourselves inhabiting an Internet of fragmentation, stagnation, higher prices, and less competition.

Our skills and our culture give us the opportunity and responsibility to prevent this from happening. We believe in the power of technology to deliver information. We believe in the power of information to do good. We believe that open is the only way for this to have the broadest impact for the most people. We are technology optimists who trust that the chaos of open benefits everyone. We will fight to promote it every chance we get.

Open will win. It will win on the Internet and will then cascade across many walks of life: The future of government is transparency. The future of commerce is information symmetry. The future of culture is freedom. The future of science and medicine is collaboration. The future of entertainment is participation. Each of these futures depends on an open Internet.

Hard to argue with those points. The nagging question: Is Google the steward of open systems?

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