Google And Open Source Software

By Andrew Price, 2006-05-27 21:59:34 in General.

I've just been reading hub's slightly bitter entry about how Google's new Linux version of Picasa isn't really a Linux version at all but a WINE version. That maybe be so, but it's really just a question of semantics and I think hub is missing the point completely with regard to how Google is approaching (or seemingly failing to approach) open source software. Google's apathy towards directly producing open source software is probably for the best in the long run.

From Google's point of view, the main competitors are Microsoft, Yahoo, and other similar companies offering similar services to them. Google's main focus is to make money, competing with these companies as best they can (and they seem to be doing that well so far). Despite their use of open source software on their computers, and their indirect contributions to open source, actually engaging in and devoting man hours to producing open source software is not going to be advantageous.

Instead Google contributes to the open source community in more subtle ways which help the open source community to grow as a whole. One example that comes to mind is the Summer of Code, which some of my friends are participating/have participated in. Another example is the $10,000 donation that Google made to the OpenBSD project to help with its financial problems. These are among the contributions to open source that Google sees as being worthwhile since they are going to help Google in the long run. By donating to projects like OpenBSD, Google helps to keep the open source community afloat and help the people who develop important software packages such as OpenSSH. By running the Summer of Code scheme, Google gets to bring students with programming skills into the open source world and - more importantly for Google - not into Microsoft development, where young developers can get trapped and become blinkered from the alternatives. It can also lead to Google finding some great programming talent before they leave university. It's the old "Catch 'em while they're young" strategy. It takes time to bear fruit, but it works. Google has also hired open source developers such as Sean Egan, the lead developer of Gaim, who was employed to work on the interoperability of Google Talk and has not been prohibited from working on Gaim by his contract (as you'd expect from some other software companies).

The effects that these contributions have on the open source community are more stability through financial backing and more talented young hackers fresh out of university getting involved. The effects on Google are that it can recognise possible new employees early, the quality of open source software that Google runs on its computers increases (long term), the computer science students who might have been scooped up by Microsoft are attracted by and inducted into the open source community instead (e.g. educated to think that python hacking is more fun than .NET hacking) and its overall reputation is boosted by the publicity generated (this is also a lesser advantage gained by open source). By employing people like Sean Egan, Google is both gaining ready expertise and paying a person to do what he likes doing, meaning that he will most probably become very good at what he does. This in turn obviously has a great effect on Gaim and how Gaim and Google Talk interoperate with each other and other Instant Messaging clients. It seems that despite Google's understandably self-centred motivations (it is a commercial business after all) both Google and open source win.

So given that Google is actually making some pretty decent contributions to open source whilst also staying out of its way and letting it get on with things as opposed to aggressively fighting it and spreading FUD about it, I think I'm willing to overlook the fact that Google didn't write a proper Linux port of Picasa. Instead of grumbling about why they haven't done so, I'd look to see what the open source community can come up with to answer the challenge that Picasa brings. F-spot, gPhoto - they're all out there. But if they're not as good as a WINE version of Google's Picasa then they should be inspired and challenged to improve. Chastising Google and telling them to listen to the open source community isn't going to help at all because Google are listening to the open source community already and providing us with inspiration and open APIs to use. They just aren't going to rush to develop open source software because it's a low business priority. I don't see a problem with that.

- Thanks to Will for casting his his eye over this entry for typos.
- Thanks also to Graham for pointing out that Gaim development isn't that wonderful with Google behind it after all.