Why Google loves developers

Google is in the online-ad business. Why does it lavish attention on software developers and open-source projects? Kicking offline Web apps into gear
Written by Martin LaMonica, Contributor
A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Millions of people use Google's Web services every day. Now the search giant wants to actively recruit the geek elite of software programmers.

On Thursday, the company will host its first Google Developer Day, attracting 5,000 people to 10 locations around the world, including the San Jose Convention Center in California.

The conference is part of a company goal to cultivate a better relationship with programmers, particularly those on the cutting edge of mashup development, a relatively new style of application development that combines information from different Web sites.

In conjunction with the conference, the company on Wednesday announced Google Gears, a Web browser plug-in that allows Web developers to add offline access to Web applications.

Google Gears is part of the company's strategy to court developers in order to make Web applications more capable--a goal that it is taking substantial steps to achieve, particularly for a company whose primary business is online search.

The company employs some of the key engineers in open-source software projects, including Linux kernel contributor Andrew Morton, and gives outside developers access to its services, often for free. Employees even write tools, released with liberal copyright and usage terms, to make the lives of Web developers easier.

Although not always obvious, these programs feed into its overall business strategy. From Google's point of view, the more good Web applications, the better.

"If the apps that show up in Google search results are more dynamic and more appealing, people will do more searches and be on the Web more," said Bret Taylor, group product manager for Google's developer products. "Because the Web is Google's platform, we're interested in improving it as much as we can."

Google Developer Day

By giving developers access to its services through application programming interfaces (APIs), Google relies on third parties to extend what it offers. An application that displays Google calendar information on a mobile phone, which is not something Google engineers had done, is apt to drive more usage of that calendar.

As Web applications become more functional, developer programs have become important strategies for Web properties Amazon.com, eBay, Microsoft and Yahoo, which itself first hosted a Hack Day for developers last fall.

An active "ecosystem," or network, of partners creating linked services drives traffic--and revenue--to the hosting site while extending their offerings.

Take our building blocks, please
During the Developer Day keynote speeches, Google executives plan to describe how the company's developer program is organized to promote creation of mashups. In addition to California, conferences are being held in London; Paris; Madrid, Spain; Moscow; Sydney, Australia; Beijing; Tokyo; Sao Paolo, Brazil; and Hamburg, Germany.

They will outline the two types of "building block" services the company intends to release: those that extend Google services and those that developers can use as part of their own applications.

For example, Google Maps is a popular component for building completely new applications that plot information from one source, such as customers or hiking locations, on a Web map.

Meanwhile, the Google Gadgets API lets third parties build miniapplications that reside within--and enhance--the Google home page or Google Desktop.

"These developers are generating a just huge amount of traffic for their own services by developing these gadgets," Taylor said. "In return, though, Google's personalized home page is only good because of the outside developers who make it good."

Similarly, tools like Google Gears, available as open source, enhance Ajax development and encourage people to use the browser as the center point of computing, Taylor said. Its goal is to make Ajax-style development, which doesn't require proprietary plug-ins like Flash or Silverlight, as capable as possible, he said.

Related story
Google kicks offline Web apps into gear
The new Google Gears open-source software brings offline access to the Web browser.

Open source plays a big role at Google and its developer program. Chris DiBona, the open-source program manager at Google, is scheduled to discuss Google's activities in open source at the London edition of Developer Day.

Google is a high-profile user of several open-source products, including a variant of Linux used in its data centers, the MySQL database and others.

Engineers participate in open-source projects for products they use, but beyond that, Google wants to promote the underlying ethic of open source, DiBona said.

"One of the reasons that I think open source is as popular as it is, is because it gives the customer, the developer, leverage again. They're not held hostage and not being locked in," he said. "We want to express that kind of idealism through our interfaces, and open-source software has shown us the way to do that."

As Google releases more APIs for its products, it will try to make them "as open as possible" by providing documentation and technical specifications for protocols, as it did with the Sitemap site-indexing protocol, which makes sites easier for search engines to crawl.

Being as open as possible with development technology helps promote creation of good applications and a positive end-user experience on the Web, DiBona said.

Adopting open-source practices with its developer products like Google Gears and APIs also enables Google to upgrade more rapidly and, as a company, keep moving fast, DiBona said. Changes in APIs can break mashup applications; an open-source "ethic" allows the company to make upgrades, he argued.

In theory, other companies could serve customers who wanted to stick with older versions of Google APIs, he said. More importantly, the ability to upgrade quickly means "we're constantly trying to sell the upgrade...One of the things we really don't want to do is, we don't want to slow down Google," DiBona said.


Correction: This report misattributed two quotes from Bret Taylor, group product manager for Google's developer products.

Editorial standards