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Flagging commitment

Surely the solution is to help to develop XMPP in the appropriate directions, not to abandon it? And if it insists on developing a new standard, why not make it open? After all, Google should know that open standards are adopted faster, making them more successful. And yet it seems reluctant to take this route with Hangouts, its broad messaging replacement for Google Talk:

Despite Google’s previous commitment to open standards, Google now says it will open Hangouts to third parties only if its competitors open their chat protocols.

“[Hangouts] features are not supported by third-party clients because they aren’t standardized,” a Google spokesperson told TechHive/PCWorld. “We would not rule out working with third-party clients if we saw a strong desire to do so from other large messaging systems.”

Sadly, this isn't the only recent example of Google's flagging commitment to open standards:

With a project called Portable Native Client now making its way into Chrome and potentially onto the Web itself, Google is violating its own principles for its Blink browser engine, a Mozilla programmer said Friday.

Portable Native Client, or PNaCl, is a Google technology to let Web apps run specially created software at nearly the speed of the native apps that run on operating systems like Windows or iOS. It plugs into the browser with an interface called Pepper.

Mozilla representatives have been frosty toward Native Client for years, but one programmer, Robert O'Callahan, issued a new criticism Friday, arguing that the Blink programming team's admirable Web standards principles take a back seat to Google's priorities with Chrome overall.

That seems to offer the unwelcome prospect of a return to the browser wars of the late 1990s, when Netscape and Microsoft piled on the proprietary extensions to the web in an attempt to gain the upper hand. It would be deeply ironic if Chrome, the browser that together with Firefox has turned the web into an extremely well-functioning and open-standards-based three-way fight, should start to take us back to the bad old days of lock-in.

Eighteen months ago, I worried here on The H Open that Google was beginning to drift dangerously. Back then, the concern was that Google was losing its way in terms of being in control and on top of the situation. Perhaps in response to similar worries both outside and inside the company, Google seems to have gone to the other extreme, trying to centralise its projects. That can be seen in the new strategy to make Hangouts its backbone for messaging, and even in the suggestion that Google Code downloads could be moved to Google Drive.

Here's a good analysis of what is going on here:

Google in 2013 is a very different company than the one most of us still envision. Larry Page’s ascension to CEO was the first step towards crafting a company more focused on big, integrated products. Gmail, Docs, and Maps now have a consistent look on both web and mobile, and although Google still has its share of experimental products like Glass and driverless cars, the days of the world-changing 20-percent projects are waning. The next Gmail just isn’t coming from two or three engineers on lunch break.

I think that puts its finger on the problem: that Google no longer believes in the open source way, even if it still uses open source software everywhere. That is, it's no longer happy to let engineers just hack code to see what happens, but has started to impose top-down management control across the company. Put another way, it's turning into a kind of Microsoft – and we all know how that story ends.

This is really bad news for Google, its engineers, its users (remember the uproar over Google Reader's shutdown?) and, of course, free software. Doubtless the company will still support projects in various ways, where these align with its overall strategy or – heaven forfend – its mission statement, whatever that is these days. And, of course, it will still base everything it does on open source, because it would be crazy not to. But something important has been lost: Google is no longer the open-loving, open-doing Google of old, and we are all the poorer for it.


Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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