Google: Open source's biggest foe and friend

Google's doing right by open source, while at the same time competing with open source vendors

The hype around Google Chrome OS is palpable. We all need to take a deep breath. In taking that deep breath, it becomes clear that Google has grown to become open source's biggest foe, while at the same time being one of open source's biggest friends. Confused? You should be.

Google helps the open source movement by contributing to various open source projects, funding open source summer development projects, sponsoring open source conferences, and simply by being a poster child for its internal use of open source. Google also open sources elements of its product portfolio in an attempt to gain market acceptance for a given product. Google Android, Google Chrome, and later this year, Google Chrome OS are examples of open sourcing to help drive adoption. For these reasons, it's easy to argue that Google is an open source friend.

[ See also: "Update: Google to launch open source Chrome OS this year" | Find out what InfoWorld contributors Randall Kennedy and Robert X. Cringely think of Google's newly announced OS ]

But it's becoming increasingly clear that Google deserves the "foe" badge when we consider open source vendors and organizations that are at the forefront of the open source movement. The Google Chrome OS, while based on Linux, is directly competitive with offerings from Red Hat, Canonical, and other Linux vendors targeting consumers. Google Chrome is competitive with Firefox, Google Docs is competitive to, and Google Apps is competitive with Zimbra. This list is certain to reach down into the middleware stack -- that is, Google App Engine of the future -- and up into the consumer applications stack with Google's ambitions.

Don't get me wrong -- competition is great for users as it forces all vendors to raise their game. However, we should not ignore the fact that Google has deftly become the largest threat to open source vendors, the same vendors who are driving open source adoption today.

When I woke to read an e-mail about Google Chrome OS from an MBA friend, Asif, a lightbulb went off about Google's "foe" status. Asif has forgotten more about world history and politics than I'll ever learn, but he would never be accused of being a computer geek. And yet, here he was sending me a link to the Financial Times story about Chrome OS. He had never mentioned Ubuntu, Red Hat, or any other open source entity to me in the past two years I've known him. If regular consumers like Asif, who generally have a strong view of the Google brand, get behind Chrome OS, then the likes of Ubuntu and other Linux distros are in for a world of hurt -- at least from a consumer angle.

But it won't stop there. As Google expands further into middleware and consumer applications, open source vendors that compete in these areas will have to compete against Google. It's one thing for an open source upstart to throw stones at Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, or SAP and position themselves as being unlike those vendors. But this strategy won't work when competing against Google, a known "friend" of open source, and especially when Google has open sourced the competing product in question. The "it's closed source" argument won't hold much weight.

Nobody ever accused MySQL of being an open source foe because it competes with PostgreSQL, so why is Google a foe just for competing with open source vendors? No open source vendor, by itself or in some informal collaboration, has the brand, reach, ability to execute, resources. or level of customer preference that Google does.  The competition will be nowhere close to fair. If Google wins against these individual open source vendors, the resulting Google stack will be much more homogeneous than we're accustomed to. The choice that open source drives will be severely limited. Open source will win and lose at the same time.

Note to self: Don't be surprised to receive an e-mail from Asif in five years titled "It's a Google world; you're just living in it. Enjoy."

Follow me on Twitter at: SavioRodrigues.

p.s.: I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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