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Are Google’s Open Credentials Slipping…Again?

by Brian Prentice  |  January 27, 2010  |  3 Comments

You know, at this point in time I really don’t care if Google is evil or not. I’d be happy if they were just consistent.

Coming off Jonathan Rosenberg’s recent manifesto on the Meaning of Open I find myself, again, trying to reconcile what Google says and what Google does. Just over a month after Rosenberg explained that a core belief at Google was;

“… that open systems win. They lead to more innovation, value, and freedom of choice for consumers, and a vibrant, profitable, and competitive ecosystem for businesses,”

comes news that Google has just been granted a patent for its MapReduce parallel programming model.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I really don’t care that Google seeks patents. But patents don’t perpetuate the open systems that Rosenberg speaks about. And the question here is how this particular patent will impact a raft of different providers and, importantly, the open source Hadoop project?

That answer, according to some, boils down to Google’s historic treatment of their intellectual property and the relevance this patent has on their core business of search-based advertising. The thinking goes that this is a defensive move for Google. This patent will be used to ward off any potential litigation from those unseemly mob of patent trolls.

Well, I hate to bring this up, but that’s exactly the story we got from Microsoft when they were building up their patent portfolio. And how has that turned out? What we need to understand is that at some point in time a burgeoning patent portfolio is seen as an asset in its own right. And when that happens organizations tend to look for ways to milk it for as much as its worth. I see that process as going through four stages:

  • Stage 1 — Patent Victim: This is the point at which an organization is large enough, and wealthy enough, to become a regular target of patent infringement actions.
  • Stage 2 — Defensive Patentee: In this stage, organizations establish formal intellectual property (IP) management strategies to build a patent portfolio that can be used to fend off infringement actions.
  • Stage 3 — License Experimenter: Once patent portfolios reach a certain mass, organizations start exploring how to leverage these patents to proactively protect commercial interests.
  • Stage 4 — Offensive Patentee: As organizations become comfortable with both the process of portfolio exploitation and the quality of portfolios, they vigorously start pursuing cross-licensing and license revenue opportunities.

So, does that mean that its only a matter of time before Google’s legal team starts sending out letters seeking license fees? I don’t know. And that’s the point. No one else does either.

I would suggest to you all that the greatest threat to any open system is, in fact, uncertainty. And what Google has done here is to dump a whole lot of uncertainty onto the market.

This could be remedied should Google choose to assign their rights to a patent commons. But in response to many valid concerns about this uncertainty Google’s Deputy General Counsel stated:

“Like other responsible, innovative companies, Google files patent applications on a variety of technologies it develops. While we do not comment about the use of this or any part of our portfolio, we feel that our behavior to date has been inline with our corporate values and priorities.”

In other words, “trust us – after all we’re not evil.”

Like I said, I’m only looking for consistency. Google can put patents like these in the public domain and bask in the glow of their open credentials. Or, they can continue to obtain patents but tell staff to stop blogging on how open they are.

I’ll take either option.


Brian Prentice
Research VP
9 years at Gartner
26 years IT industry

Brian Prentice is a research vice president and focuses on emerging technologies and trends with an emphasis on those that impact an organization's software and application strategy... Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Are Google’s Open Credentials Slipping…Again?

  1. Aaron says:

    Another well-reasoned post, thank you again Brian. I too wonder at times why we care so much about what a single corporation does, but given their tremendous power, which they’ve earned rightfully by providing an amazing service, for free, they also have inherited a great responsibility. And they seem to be genuinely conflicted with their newfound noblesse oblige. I believe what we’re witnessing is akin to a child prodigy, struggling to grasp, in deeply internal ways, both intellectually and politically, its abilities weighed against its social responsibilities.

  2. Brian Prentice says:

    Thanks Aaron – To the extent to which you can ascribe the behaviour of a child prodigy to an organization as whole I think that’s a great analogy. Then again we could just have a bunch of people who are drinking too much of their own company’s kool-aid :-) That is except for the people responsible for managing the companies assets who behave in a very different way.

  3. […] have their financial self-interest at heart in such deals, but Gartner Research Vice President Brian Prentice points out an even bigger issue that could drive a wedge between Google and the wider open-source […]

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