Commentary

Searching For Google's Definition Of 'Open'

World Break

The definition of "open" continues to baffle some, even those at Google. The Mountain View, Calif., company has been on a crusade for years to not only digitize the world's information, but share it openly.

That's one reason Google Senior Vice President of Product Management Jonathan Rosenberg put together a long memo defining the word "open" and posted it to the Google blog. He wants to set the record straight before 2009 comes to a close. The post suggests a bigger, "open" Internet is better for Google, developers, advertisers and people who search for information on the Internet. And, Googlers should strive to keep products open when designing them.

Rosenberg explains two parts to Google's definition of "open": open technology and open information. Open technology standards encompass open source, meaning Google releases and actively supports code to help grow the Internet. That might mean code to Android used by developers to create programs that run on mobile. Open standards aim to improve the Internet for all, not just to benefit Google. They reflects Google's acceptance of standards, or their creation, to improve the ability to share information.

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Open information means that when Google has information about people, it aims to use it to provide something valuable. The company wants to remain "transparent" about the information it collects, relying on that information to serve up a variety of content, from news and information to ads. These are the things Google wants to do, but even Rosenberg admits that in many cases the company isn't there yet. "I hope that with this note we can start working to close the gap between reality and aspiration," he writes.

Rosenberg also admits that Google remains closed when it's for the good of the customer. He writes that while Google is committed to opening the code for developer tools, not all Google products are open source. The 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 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 competitive with low switching costs, so users and advertisers already have plenty of choice. They are not locked in. Opening these systems would allow people to game Google's algorithms by manipulating search and ads quality rankings, reducing quality for everyone.

Rosenberg also addresses the openness of information. He recognizes that people upload massive amounts of personal information in photos, contacts and videos daily. What's remarkable is that the scale of information shared today is so much greater than the amount people thought they would share just a few years ago.

One thing's for sure. Google strategists will need to keep in mind the company's definition of "open" as the industry works its way through 2010.

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