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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