How to make Google good again
by Glyn Moody
How can Google become a force for good again? Returning to its open roots would be a great place to start. Glyn Moody offers a few suggestions on how to do this.
Remember the good old days? – when Google was good:
The Google Code of Conduct is one of the ways we put "Don't be evil" into practice
Even if few would regard Google as positively evil today, most would probably agree that its halo has slipped somewhat from the halcyon early days when it could trumpet its “Don't be evil” Code of Conduct without looking totally ridiculous.
But the recent replacement of Eric Schmidt by Larry Page as CEO, and the subsequent reorganisation currently underway, brings with it a unique opportunity for the company to return to its roots – and regain its earlier reputation for being more fully on the side of the angels.
One of the key aspects of the latter has been its support for open source, which has been at the heart of Google's infrastructure from the earliest days. Its adoption of free software played an important part in allowing the company to offer a range of free services – search, email, video content etc. – that could scale globally, Something that would have been much harder for a startup to achieve with traditional licensed software, where costs would have risen far more steeply.
Google itself has recognised and articulated the importance of open source and openness in a fine post on its Public Policy Blog, entitled “The meaning of open”:
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.
That was written a few months ago by Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President, Product Management. That's the good news; the bad news is this:
SVP of product management Jonathan Rosenberg just resigned from Google.
Rosenberg has been with Google since 2002.
Until today, he was considered one of the very most powerful people at the company.
So, a vocal champion of openness, and “one of the very most powerful people at the company” is no longer there: where does that leave open source and openness?
We probably won't know for a while, and by then it will be too late to do much about it. So now might be a good time to offer a few suggestions to Larry Page and his team about ways in which they could do themselves and the world a favour by deepening their embrace of open source and openness. What follows are a few concrete suggestions that they might like to consider.
This is a particularly clear example of Google backsliding: where once it was pretty unequivocal that Android was open (even if it contained some proprietary elements), today the situation is much muddier:
we continue to be an open source platform and will continue releasing source code when it is ready. As I write this the Android team is still hard at work to bring all the new Honeycomb features to phones. As soon as this work is completed, we’ll publish the code. This temporary delay does not represent a change in strategy. We remain firmly committed to providing Android as an open source platform across many device types.
Unfortunately, Andy Rubin's fine words butter no parsnips: Motorola's Xoom is out there, the code is not. If the work on Honeycomb is not completed, why has Motorola used it? If it is complete, why hasn't it been released?
What we need is a clear commitment to release Android code early and often – after all, that's the open source way. Doing so would restore the advantage that Google had initially with Android: that it represented an open alternative to the closed iPhone. Yes, there are issues to do with fragmentation, but that's something that Google needs to solve in other ways – not by simply locking down the whole process.
Many people are aware of Google's retrograde moves in the world of Android, but maybe fewer know about the following issue in the world of mapping:
Google’s strategy is to build market in Africa by appropriating the appearance of open data community methodologies, yet maintaining corporate control of what should rightfully be a common resource. They are specifically targetting govts and NGOs, offering to “map their country for free”, but keeping the results, and attracting customers.
For more details on the problem, see “Why Google MapMaker is not Open”.
This is troubling for a number of reasons. Not only is Google not giving back in a completely open way, it seems to be doing this in developing countries that would benefit the most from true sharing. It's hard not to see this as a kind of neo-colonialism, appropriating not physical resources as the old British Empire and others did, but digital ones – arguably more damaging in the long term.
If Google wants to get closer to its original "Don't be evil" mantra, solving this problem would be a good place to start.