Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior VP of Product Management at Google, should be congratulated for sharing his expansive thoughts on “The Meaning of Open.” This will no doubt generate a lot of debate on whether people feel Google is acting within this definition. But I think it’s necessary to take issue with some of his logic, particularly as it relates to open source and open technology.
First off, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that while Google may not be the paragon of open virtue they’re certainly better than most. They are, in my personal opinion, one of the most positive forces for the advancement of open source in the market today. So, what could I possibly disagree with? Well, my primary issue with Rosenberg’s views boil down to what I see more as a sin of omission rather than commission.
Rosenberg introduces the following idea early in his piece:
To understand our position in more detail, it helps to start with the assertion that open systems win. This is counter-intuitive to the traditionally trained MBA who is taught to generate a sustainable competitive advantage by creating a closed system, making it popular, then milking it through the product life cycle
OK, let’s run with that idea and compare it to Google’s actions. When we look at the areas where Google embraces open technology, open standards and open source it becomes clear it’s focused on the way Google operates its business. But when it comes to Google’s core advertising business things start looking a whole lot less open. Remember, Google’s core link analysis algorithm, PageRank, is a patented process. The refinements and improvements they’ve made over the years are strictly held secrets. Sure, Google have proven to be masters at strategically applying open source in the provision of their core business and in removing competitive obstacles. But embracing things like open advertising networks are another thing altogether.
Again, I’m not interested in criticizing Google. Nor is Rosenberg trying to paint Google as purely an open organization. But the disconnect between Rosenberg’s assertion that open systems win and what Google actually does is indicative of a common misunderstanding of how modern businesses are using open standards, open source and open technology. Openness is by and large a strategy to reduce operating costs and remove supply chain dependencies. Open is not a revenue engine in its own right. In that regard, Rosenberg’s observation about sustaining competitive advantage through closed system are still valid. The only real change is that organizations are increasingly understanding how to balance both closed and open systems.
The truth is that closed systems still win. Open systems, practically speaking, are basically good for making others lose.
The art of business in the 21st century is figuring out how to open up your suppliers’ and competitors’ business while keeping yours tightly sealed. And in that endeavor Google has proven highly successful.
But here Rosenberg gets all tangled up trying to explain this away. He says:
While we are committed to opening the code for our developer tools, not all Google products are open source. Our goal is to keep the Internet open, which promotes choice and competition and keeps users and developers from getting locked in. In many cases, most notably our search and ads products, opening up the code would not contribute to these goals and would actually hurt users. The search and advertising markets are already highly competitive with very low switching costs, so users and advertisers already have plenty of choice and are not locked in. Not to mention the fact that opening up these systems would allow people to “game” our algorithms to manipulate search and ads quality rankings, reducing our quality for everyone.
It’s so good to know that Google has our back, isn’t? And I’m sure there’s a broad consensus that Google is in the best position to determine which parts of the internet should be open and which parts should be closed. Coincidentally, the part that should stay closed is the part they make their money.
Seriously though, I don’t think Rosenberg is making any attempt to mislead. I think he’s thinking out loud and trying to reconcile the paradox he’s created for himself – that open systems win even though Google’s success is so clearly the result of being strategically closed. Jonathan – just accept that modern businesses need both open and closed systems and the paradox of your achievements will disappear.