In-Depth

Google's Secret Weapon

While it soft pedals direct competition with Microsoft, the search giant quietly keeps working on open source projects designed to undermine its archrival.

What is the greatest threat to Microsoft's dominance: Google Inc. or open source? The answer is both, especially when they're working together.

"Open source is a software capitalist's supreme tool," says Matt Asay, vice president of business development with Alfresco Software Inc., an open source enterprise content management company. "It enables vendors to align closely with their customers and prospects while simultaneously undermining competitors' efforts to charge license fees for their own products. It's one that Google has been using to good effect in toppling 20th-century software businesses."

The search giant is always careful to squelch speculation of any looming clash of the titans. When Google added a presentation app to its online office suite, for example, CEO Eric Schmidt adamantly stated it was not a rival to Microsoft Office.

Others -- like Raven Zachary, research director of open source with The 451 Group -- beg to differ. "There's a need by Google to displace Microsoft Office's dominance to support Google's [Software as a Service] office suite offering," he says. "This is straight-up competition."

As much as Google works to downplay that competition in public, in private it is well aware that Microsoft has spent $6 billion acquiring the digital advertising company aQuantive Inc. to spearhead its attack on Google in its home market. History shows that Microsoft doesn't rest until it owns any sector it enters, so peaceful cohabitation is hardly an option.

Against this complex background, Google's bevy of Ph.D.s came up with the perfect solution: a way to fight Microsoft without appearing to do so. Open source lies at the heart of that strategy.

Open for Business
Most people know Google runs its vast server farms -- rumored to be hundreds of thousands of machines -- on customized versions of GNU/Linux. Fewer are aware that it also makes extensive use of the leading open source database, MySQL.

"[Google is] an example of a company that literally couldn't have existed in the same form pre-Linux or pre-open source," says Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation -- the organization that pays Linus Torvalds to work on the Linux kernel. "If they had to rely on Microsoft or Sun, not only would it have been too expensive, they could not have done the modifications necessary to create their services."

The last point is confirmed by Google's Open Source Programs Manager Chris DiBona, who joined the company in August 2004 to oversee and coordinate its open source activities: "The thing about open source [is], it's kind of like it's yours. Considering that Google does an insane amount of software development, if we had to have some of the restrictions that heavily proprietary [code] would present us, we couldn't develop at the speed that we do."

One way Google supports the open source ecosystem is by employing some of its top coders.

"We do that because having those people on staff, those projects can continue to move forward, and that's good for us," DiBona notes, "and also our use of the projects informs the directions, sometimes, where these projects can go." High-profile hires include Andrew Morton, No. 2 in the Linux world; Greg Stein, a director of The Apache Software Foundation; and Jeremy Allison, one of the leaders of the Samba project, which provides open source file and print services to SMB/CIFS clients, including Windows.

Another senior open source hacker who has joined the Google fold is Ben Goodger, lead engineer on Firefox. Google's links with this increasingly serious rival to Internet Explorer go much deeper, however. Google is the main search engine for Firefox, both in the dedicated search box and on the default homepage when Firefox is first installed.

In October 2007, it was revealed that the organization behind Firefox, namely the Mozilla Foundation, had earned around $66 million in 2006 from its business relationships with search engines. That's up from about $50 million the previous year. That means that Google, by far the most important of those paying for search queries, is effectively underwriting the development of Firefox and Thunderbird, Mozilla's rival to Microsoft Outlook, and hence quietly chipping away at Microsoft's position in the browser and e-mail markets.

Google has also started hosting high-level meetings where key free software individuals from a project can come together to meet face-to-face -- something that otherwise happens quite rarely. For example, in November 2006, senior coders working on the Ubuntu distribution (the one used by Dell Inc. for its consumer PCs running GNU/Linux) gathered on Google's campus; the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit was held there in June 2007; and in September 2007, leading Python developers met up to work on version 3 of that language. Python is one of the three programming languages used extensively by Google (the other two are Java and C++), and its creator, Guido van Rossum, also works for Google.

A Summer Romance
It's not just open source superstars who get care and attention from Google. In 2005, the search giant instituted its "Summer of Code" scheme whereby computer students are financed by Google to work with an open source project during their summer holidays. This helps move those projects forward and it increases their sustainability by bringing in new blood.

As Sebastian Kügler from the KDE desktop environment project (currently being ported to Windows) comments: "This is what [Summer of Code] is really about: infecting students with the free software spirit, giving them the opportunity to grow into a community like ours."

There's another more subtle benefit, as DiBona explains. Thanks to the Summer of Code, "Google now knows all the people working on all these software projects, on which it depends," he says. "That's incredibly useful to us. Every once in a while we'll come out with a new API and there'll be some projects in the open source world that might be useful in either using that API or being a customer. You can just call them up and say, 'hey guys, it's Google, we're you're pal,' and let them just check it out."

The other important way in which Google bolsters free software is by offering its own code under open source licenses (usually the Apache license, as with Google's new Android mobile phone platform). Perhaps the most significant release so far is Google Gears. "Gears is an open source browser extension that enables developers to build Web applications that can work offline," DiBona explains. "We knew that we could just release a plug-in and make it good for our apps, but with open source other people can use it and feel safe to use it, and know that people can't just abandon the technology, because they have it, too."

Releasing Gears as open source encourages a wider adoption in the free software community and beyond. If Gears takes off, and people are able to use Web-based apps offline through their browser, then the underlying OS becomes less important -- and Microsoft's hold on the desktop weakens.

Fighting on Two Fronts
The net result of all these separate, low-profile initiatives by Google to support open source is that Microsoft now finds itself facing not one serious challenger, but two, which are tightly intertwined.

"I think it has put Microsoft under a kind of pressure that they were certainly expecting, but sooner and more severely than they were expecting," says Eric Raymond, author of the seminal analysis of free software "The Cathedral and the Bazaar."

"They probably thought they had time to cope while Linux was getting its desktop act together, a process that was bound to be messy and protracted," he says. "No such luxury; their lock-in is now under attack from two directions, and Google will remain a pretty formidable threat even if desktop Linux stalls out."

Moreover, things are likely to get worse as other companies realize that one way of weakening Microsoft is to strengthen open source. This has been an important element in IBM Corp.'s strategy for nearly a decade, ever since it dumped its own Web server and adopted the free Apache software, back in 1998.

Since then it has ported GNU/Linux to its entire line of hardware and donated more than $40 million of its code to set up the Eclipse project as a counterbalance to Microsoft's Visual Studio. More recently, Microsoft's other main rival in the online space, Yahoo! Inc., has joined the club of open source supporters -- opening APIs for its services; running Open Hack Days in the United States, United Kingdom and India; and buying the open source messaging and collaboration company Zimbra Inc. for a reported $350 million.

Like Google, Yahoo has also signed up some key open source coders, including MySQL expert Jeremy Zawodny and Doug Cutting, a leader in the field of search engine technologies. Cutting will work full-time on his open source Hadoop framework, which on his blog he calls "a file system modeled after [the Google File System] and a distributed computing system modeled after Google's MapReduce."

Just as Google has managed the trick of directing open source power against Microsoft, Yahoo hopes it can do the same with Hadoop. Of course, Yahoo's volley has the added bonus of targeting Google as well.

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Reader Comments:

Thu, May 6, 2010

wont happen

Mon, Jan 21, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

Please consider this: capitalism and conducting business in this world is all about making money and winning in the market you are operating in. Making money is the incentive for companies to deliver quality products and provide jobs. Microsoft is such company and plays the game very well. The software industry is only around for about 20 years or so, so we simply can't expect that all things like patents, business models etc are sorted out yet. I think a lot of good can come from the competition of Google and the like, but I also believe that MS has a positieve influence on the development of the software market as a whole (given the capitalist context). Besides, the vast amount of "open source" knowledge about software development and infrastructure which is donated to the industry by MS will increase significantly in time, which makes their platform attractive to implement due to the low costs of developement (personnel).
Like it or not, the products that come from MS for the business market (SharePoint, Exchange, CRM etc) are most likely the best (your tax) money can buy...

Thu, Jan 17, 2008 TJGodel Washington, DC

Yesterday Sun announced it was acquiring MySQL a main component in LAMP. Sun is redefining it's business model ,as this articles states others will do, to compete with Microsoft and others. Sun has now aligned itself with Google with two important open source projects Java and MySQL.

Thu, Jan 10, 2008 Kameran Ahari Washington, DC

Great post on Google's various FOSS initiatives. Clearly, the community of developers, enterprise customers, and user community in general are forging a much more cohesive and efficient product innovation strategy. The traditional "push" not invented here (NIH) product development cycle and licensing business model continues to lose its competitive advantage. Google's approach is far more strategic that going after some specific Windows productivity application and market (Office, etc.). Google's approach is to accelerate innovation and brand loyalty through transformational change. Other software publishers (OEM) and Internet companies would be smart to retool their business model and strategy.

gotastrategy.typepad.com

Thu, Jan 10, 2008 tooper Bangalore

For a complete integrated Python IDE, try Eric3...

Tue, Jan 8, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

Face it, the Windows licensing model is based on "Planned Obsolescence". Office 95, Office 97, Office 2000, Office 2003 are perfect examples. How many times do you have to buy an office suite in an 8 year span? Microsoft, rather than deliver a quality product, and then issue patches for small updates and additions, insists on forcing consumers to pay for Bill Gate's fortune by making consumers re-buy their software as it forcibly becomes obsolete every two years. If that wasn't insult enough, Microsoft will also obsolete other manufacturer's software that used to run fine on Windows 2000, but won't run at all on XP. Planned Obsolescence is the name of their game, and consumers, government (taxes to the people) and businesses pay the price. Open Source is the only way to defeat the Microsoft beast. Micro$oft wants your money, and they don't care who they hurt in the process. Force your state and local governments to stop spending your tax dollars on Microsoft junk...

Thu, Jan 3, 2008 Anand NY

Yahoo a friend, no way.......

Thu, Jan 3, 2008 Do Ra

GUI IDEs for Python? Evrything in the article points to using web apps. Sure, there are a few instances where you do need the powerspeed to run on a PC - like video editing, but those apps are few. I don't believe in IDE's all that much anyway. They tend to put in too much crap that experienced programmers would just write from scratch to avoid it.

Thu, Jan 3, 2008 Borm Anonymous

Google also offers cash for each new install of Firefox bundled with the Google Search bar.
This is done via the google adsence refferal program. Google pays from 0.1$ to 1$ per install (depending on the location/country of the instaling user).

Thu, Jan 3, 2008 Damian Poland

You said about Eclipse and posted not a word of OpenSolaris initiative by Sun. In my humble opinion it is a worthy contender and a high quality code, also worth quite a sum. All donated to Open Source base by Sun Microsystems, Inc.

Wed, Jan 2, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

Big money is in the enterprise customer base and Google's free apps is at best unreliable in a production environment ! As long as bankers are not thinking of using Google Apps, MS has nothing to worry about its position in MS Office.

Wed, Jan 2, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

Python is VERY easy to learn and quick to develop command line apps., however until it is tied into an IDE to quickly develop gui apps it won't be mainstream. Eclipse or Netbeans needs to make the java language work with swing to quickly develop GUI apps. It needs to run on a common platform like java but jython helps there.

Wed, Jan 2, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

Google Java wrote : 'For Google to continue the assault on Microsoft (or simply on continued adoption by IT, it needs to develop a Visual Basic type language that is easy and quick to use but would compile to the java runtime'. I agree with this, but think you have to look no further than python (jpython, to be exact). It is an implementation of python in java, and uses the JVM. Python is a object-oriented language that is very easy to learn, allowing dynamic typing, etc., and can use the standard JRE "library".

Wed, Jan 2, 2008 Alan USA

I agree with Google Java, but I would say such languages already exist. Consider Python, which IMO is far easier and more elegant language than VB. It has the capability (via Jython) to be compile to java bytecode and to use the Swing libraries. What it's lacking is a good IDE and a major push by folks like Google and IBM. Everyone pushes java instead, which is too much like coding in cpp for a lot of people.

Regarding MS's defense, it's a shame that their strategy so far has been to use patents and legal maneuvering to become a barrier to innovation rather than to embrace the future and continue innovating. Open Source is the future, like it or not. Eric Raymond predicted it 10 years ago, and his predictions have largely held to date. Monopolies don't last forever.

Wed, Jan 2, 2008 Google Java Anonymous

For Google to continue the assault on Microsoft (or simply on continued adoption by IT, it needs to develop a Visual Basic type language that is easy and quick to use but would compile to the java runtime. See www.comutingwishlist.com for further explanation of this.
Call it Google Basic or Java Basic, the need exists. Visual Basic is the language of choice for many IT shops and they aren't going to complete sell out Microsoft until they have a replacement for this tool. Many people make fun of VB but tell that to tens of thousands of IT shops using it daily.

Java is open source, runs on anything and needs an easier and quicker language front-end like VB. This is a true write-once, run anywhere solution. And as the blog indicates, Google could offer up the IDE online like their office suite so development could be done anywhere and could be easily shared among developers.

Tue, Jan 1, 2008 isl Anonymous

No surprise why Steve Ballmer would start trumpeting that open source violates MS patents.

Tue, Jan 1, 2008 Matt Boehm Anonymous

The only viable response they seem to have left is a patent oriented one like lawsuits through third parties (like the X windows based one with a company strangely staff by a bunch of former employees) or psuedo-cross licensing deals like Novell, Linspire et al. The lawsuits may be a way to avoid impact from counter suits from FLOSS friendly companies and OIN and the Novell-like deals kill the community from within.

Mon, Dec 31, 2007 Matt Asay Anonymous

Glyn gets this 100% correct. Google is disruptive to Microsoft's business. So is open source. One changes the game to server-based services while the other changes the cost profile of software and how it's distributed. But together? Microsoft could not have seen this coming, and has not demonstrated a viable response to date.

Wed, Dec 26, 2007 Anonymous Anonymous

Yep. Google also releases some original source code as open source. Much more than Microsoft.

Microsoft can't do anything right, except milk their original cash cows using the old licensing model. But those days are numbered, and don't expect Microsoft to be able to compete in any other way. They have yet to demonstrate anything more than "me too" in a very long time.

In other words, you might consider changing the name of your magazine in the near future. ;-)

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