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12/22/2009
08:59 AM
Seth Grimes
Seth Grimes
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Google and the Meaning of Half Open

Google is half open: the conclusion I draw after reading product management SVP Jonathan Rosenberg's "The Meaning of Open." For all the pride and confidence and even wisdom conveyed in the essay, Google's core, its strategic direction -- Rosenberg's own product management brief -- is rightly closed rather than community-driven.

Google is half open: the conclusion I draw after reading product management SVP Jonathan Rosenberg's long, rambling essay, "The Meaning of Open," a seeming apologia pro vita sua posted December 21 to the Official Google Blog. Rosenberg and Google get it -- open source software creates value for everyone and give-back is essential; open information creates choice and engenders trust among individuals who engage in the Internet ecosystem -- but for all the pride and confidence and even wisdom conveyed in the essay --

Closed systems are well-defined and profitable, but only for those who control them. Open systems are chaotic and profitable, but only for those who understand them well and move faster than everyone else. Closed systems grow quickly while open systems evolve more slowly, so placing your bets on open requires the optimism, will, and means to think long term. Fortunately, at Google we have all three of these.
-- the repeated assertions of Google's openness only reinforce that Google's core, its strategic direction -- Rosenberg's own product management brief -- is closed rather than community-driven. In the end, for Google, (updating a Vulgate translation of a phrase of Isaiah's, adding tech-marketing talk), "my secret [sauce] is my own."Google is a strong participant in open-source software projects, an adherent to open standards and as active a "data liberator" as any private enterprise on the planet, not just for data held in Google apps but also for public data. But Google is not open in the sense that (good) governments are open, providing not only open information (per the Obama Administration's Open Government Directive) but also open policy making and deliberation and operations, where (again adapting a quotation), Google's platform "is designed for the public's active participation in shaping their future access to [Google-held] information."

We used to think that Google was just a search engine. Then we realized that the company is more, an information-access gateway for more than just the Web -- additionally for e-mail, social media, Web applications, and databases -- funded by and as a vehicle for the monetized effectiveness of its advertising platform. Now we see that Google is a public good, "good" used in the sense of "goods and services" rather than as a value judgment, a public resource, one that given its market dominance operates with the unavoidable presence of a government agency. Could Google operate the way good government does, in a truly open manner with company direction determined via open debate? Or would an open process mean degradation, not excellence and world leadership but instead better-than-nothing products that leave no one completely satisfied, sort of like U.S. health-care "reform"? The answers are Yes and Yes: Google is better off as it is, half open, but preferably with the self-awareness that being an open company entails more than open-source software development, adherence to open standards, and data liberation.

The meaning of open: sometimes you're better off not going all the way there.Google is half open: the conclusion I draw after reading product management SVP Jonathan Rosenberg's "The Meaning of Open." For all the pride and confidence and even wisdom conveyed in the essay, Google's core, its strategic direction -- Rosenberg's own product management brief -- is rightly closed rather than community-driven.

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