Google was good this week. It was very, very good to finally get rid of this overhang over fonts, and intellectual rights to them. Now Web pages can be prettier, or we can reach deep into the bag and make them practically unreadable.
But when Google is good, when it's very, very good as it was this week, it pays for us to ask why. (That's the logo for Google's new font directory. Very clean, very nice. Just hope the good people at Scrabble don't get upset over it.)
The easy answer is that it's easy for Google to be good. Google's costs for transacting and moving data are so incredibly low that anything it does to raise demand is good for Google. So it can afford this.
Another reason is that it pays for Google to be good. It pays in two ways:
It increases goodwill, and that's very important online. In a friction free world your reputation is everything. Journalists live that way because we're ten a penny. But if you can get goodwill in the market, goodwill from your shareholders, and goodwill from policymakers at a cost of near zero, why wouldn't you?
It degrades competitors' advantages. If you've been making a handsome living, doing little or no new work, from a patent monopoly on fonts or codecs, Google has just disadvantaged you. Google isn't a software company, but most of its chief competitors are software companies. They're gonna drown or we're hosing 'em out.
Despite all this being in Google's best interests, despite it being to its advantage, I find it foolish and cynical to look these gift horses in the mouth. I think it's better to see what lessons your business can learn from this.
It's the infrastructure, stupid -- Using Moore's Law aggressively, driving out costs continuously, even when you're the cost leader, is the best way to grow in the 21st century.
Reputation matters -- When people believe you are not evil they are more likely to do business with you. All kinds of business. Including political business.
Success is a political process -- One reason competitors have started attacking Google as evil is precisely because they now recognize this fact. But you can use this knowledge to your own advantage as well.
One thing Google's strategy does is demonstrate there is more than one way to political success. Giving away what you can, what you can afford to give away, can be seen as just another strategy, alongside pressing opponents or attacking them.
It's a bit like the movie Monsters Inc. Laughter draws more energy than fear.
My guess is Eric Schmidt sleeps better at night this way, too. The point is, in an open source world, you can emulate Google's strategy and do very well by doing good.