Open "ish": The meaning of open, according to Google

By Mark Sigal
December 22, 2009

open-sign.jpgIn 'The Meaning of Open,' Google's SVP, Product Management, Jonathan Rosenberg, simultaneously acknowledges the fuzziness of what exactly "being open" means and owns up to the fact that Google isn't all the way there.

Give him credit, though; he actually attempts to provide some definitive table stakes for how Google is trying to walk the talk (his communication originated from an internal memo to Google staffers; it's definitely worth a read):

There are two components to our definition of open: open technology and open information. Open technology includes open source, meaning we release and actively support code that helps grow the Internet, and open standards, meaning we adhere to accepted standards and, if none exist, work to create standards that improve the entire Internet (and not just benefit Google).

Open information means that when we have information about users we use it to provide something that is valuable to them, we are transparent about what information we have about them, and we give them ultimate control over their information. These are the things we should be doing. In many cases we aren't there, but I hope that with this note we can start working to close the gap between reality and aspiration.

First, let's give the company props, as they deserve major kudos for even being willing to open up their proprietary core as much as they do (think how a company like Yelp avoided having to re-create the wheel or throw a sinkhole of costs to incorporate rich mapping functionality into their service, thanks to the relative openness of Google Maps).

At the same time, I have to roll the eyes a bit, as it all feels like selective adherence to the openness credo.

After all, it's not like crown jewels like the search index are white boxes for consumers to granularly control or repurpose, or for brands/publishers to do the same.

And of course, the company exercises fairly tight control over what data is shared and what is proprietary to Google. For example, all of these years later, nobody really knows what "open" Google makes in the AdSense/AdWord model (an arbitrage of asymmetric control of information, if there ever was one), yet by contrast, "closed" Apple's 70/30 split with developers is pretty transparent in the realm of App Store.

And while Android is open source - because, if Android marketing is to be believed, it just makes sense, leading to more diversity and more consumer choice - the Google apps that ride on top of it are not open source, which to me fits the old mantra of "be open where commoditization is the goal, be closed when proprietary differentiation is the goal."

The ends justify the means, with a touch of 'do no evil' (or not too much).

All that said, a great company relative to the rest, and the dialog on openness is certainly one worth having.

Related Posts:

  1. Android vs. iPhone: Why Openness May Not Be Best

  2. Holy Sh-t! Apple's Halo Effect

  3. Android's 'Inevitability' and the Missing Leg

  4. Built-to-Thrive - The Standard Bearers: Apple, Google, Amazon

  5. Envisioning the Social Map-lication

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