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04 June 2013, 16:20

Whatever happened to Google?

by Glyn Moody

Although Google continues to support a variety of open projects and people, Glyn Moody notes that, following recent changes to Google Code and Google Talk, concern is growing that something fundamental has changed.

Google looms large over the internet, and hence computing. But as I've noted here on The H Open before, its importance for free software is particularly marked. It has not only shown how to build a global, multi-billion dollar company based almost entirely on free software, it has also actively supported a wide range of open projects and people.

That's continuing. Just recently, it promised not to assert ten patents it has received for its MapReduce technology when it comes to their use in open source or free software. It has announced that it will pay the open access fees for all articles by Google researchers that are published in Association for Computing Machinery journals, taking advantage of a new option there. And it continues to run the important Google Summer of Code programme, together with the less well-known but equally useful Google Policy Fellowship scheme (disclosure: I am an unpaid mentor for one of this year's fellows.)

But alongside this good stuff, there are a growing number of moves that have led many to ask whether something has changed at Google – and whether Google is still such a deeply-committed ally of openness. For example, it recently announced a change to its Google Code service:

Downloads were implemented by Project Hosting on Google Code to enable open source projects to make their files available for public download. Unfortunately, downloads have become a source of abuse with a significant increase in incidents recently. Due to this increasing misuse of the service and a desire to keep our community safe and secure, we are deprecating downloads.

It's not really clear what is meant by "abuse" here, although of course it's perfectly reasonably that Google wants to stamp it out, whatever kind it is. But it seems rather an extreme solution simply to disable downloads altogether. And the fact that GitHub has done the same doesn't change the fact that Google gives the impression that it just can't be bothered – after all, isn't that why it employs all those PhDs: to come up with the ideas that others can't?

And then we had Google Talk:

In the midst of the major press blitz surrounding its annual I/O Conference, Google dropped some unfortunate news about its instant messaging plans. In several places around the web, the company is replacing the existing "Talk" platform with a new one called "Hangouts" that sharply diminishes support for the open messaging protocol known as XMPP (or sometimes informally Jabber), and also removes the option to disable the archiving of all chat communications. These changes represent a switch from open protocols to proprietary ones, and a clear step backward for many users.

This is certainly not a case of Google simply being "evil". Google's CEO, Larry Page, touched on the issues here during his Google I/O 2013 keynote speech:

I think that we’ve really invested a lot into the open standards behind all that. And I’ve personally been quite saddened at the industry’s behavior around all these things. You just take something as simple as instant messaging. We’ve kind of had an offer forever that we’ll interoperate on instant messaging. I think just this week Microsoft took advantage of that by interoperating with us, but not doing the reverse. Which is really sad, right? And that’s not the way to make progress. You need to actually have interoperation, not just people milking off one company for their own benefit.

So I think Google’s always stood for that. I’ve been sad that the industry hasn’t been able to advance those things. I think generally, because of a focus on negativity and on zero-sum games. So I hope we try to be on the right side of all of those things, but we also try to be practical and look at what other people are doing, and not just rely on our principles to shoot ourselves in the foot, and our users in the process.

Those are fair points. Google has certainly done more than Microsoft in supporting open standards. But it's hard to see how moving away from them now really helps. Similarly, its other comments about the protocol's problems are unconvincing:

In addition, Google also determined that the "openness" of Talk yielded bad user experiences, such as making the service vulnerable to spam attacks, and also prevented Google from having a product that supported the breadth of communication that Hangouts provides, according to the spokesperson.

"When XMPP was designed, smartphones and social networks didn't exist. Yet both trends essentially transformed communication but the standard remains unchanged. For example, mobile has several requirements around bandwidth and battery that are simply not part of the standard. And audio and video integration are not well defined," she said.

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