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Google and MSFT in Open Source Smackdown

By - January 04, 2005

GatesmsftThreadwatch has a summary of an ongoing tempest between Adam Bosworth, eminence gris of Google and the man who most of the world seems to expect will lead-develop “The Google OS,” and some folks at MSFT who clearly are itching for a fight. The topic: Google and Open Source. Late last month Bosworth posted a plea on his site for the Open Source community to finish the job with regard to robust databases, and the MSFT folks saw an opening: Google has taken a lot from the open source community, but what has it given back? Here are the MSFT response – this post is from Dare Obasanjo, this one is from Krzysztof Kowalczyk. Both are very entertaining reads (Dare’s is mostly a reposting of Krzysztof’s, but there are a few zingers and his has comments turned on.)

Highlight:

In those days of focus on corporate profits (where there any other days?), Google’s motto “Do no Evil” is refreshing. Or is it? It’s a nice soundbite, but when you think about it, it’s really a low requirement. There are very little things that deserve to be called Evil. If a senior citizen is taking a nap outside his house on a sunny day and you kick him in the groin – that’s Evil. Most other things are bad or neutral. Not doing Evil is easy. Doing Good is the hard thing.



To his credit, Adam Bosworth responds, in the comments. Keep in mind, Adam worked at Microsoft for a long time:

For Microsoft to condemm those of us who benefit from Open Source is rich. Honestly, it is like the Nazi’s condeming the Swiss from benefiting from the refugees.

Yow….

As I understand it, when it comes to giving back to the Open Source community, the Microsofties may have a point, at least strictly speaking. But then again, Google took open source and, well, built Google, and it’s free for all to use. That’s not such a bad thing, is it?

It’s very interesting (and rather odd) to see MSFT employees take pole position on nobility and open source goodness. Those in the know tell me that Google has made significant and quite valuable modifications to various open source tools. Perhaps it’s time they shared some of that wealth back to the community from whence it originated.

UPDATE: Adam has posted a response on his site. Highlights:

We all benefit from those who came before us. We benefit most when the knowledge is free and generally accessible., but we benefit either way. It would seem that these cacophonous critics, yammering about giving back and sweepingly ignoring the 100′s of billions of times people use and appreciate what Google gives them for free every day from Search to Scholar to Blogger to gMail to Picasa, do not understand this basic fact.

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  • http://www.25hoursaday.com/weblog Dare Obasanjo

    >It’s very interesting (and rather odd) to see MSFT employees take pole position on nobility and open source goodness.

    Krzysztof is no longer a Microsoft employee. Also given that I am the project lead on a couple of Open Source projects I don’t think it is odd for me to wonder about the infamous ‘free rider problem’ and Open Source.

  • http://battellemedia.com John Battelle

    Good points, Dare, thanks.

  • http://willets.org Kendall Willets

    Nutch.org, IMHO, has a more relevant argument about open-sourcing search/ranking algorithms themselves, rather than quibbling about whose system software the engines are running.

    Maybe if Adam gets all the features he’s requesting (or he opens an Oracle manual), Google can have a real query language, and allow people to code their own rankings.

  • name

    adam bosworth vs. microsoft PR lackeys like Obasanjo. i think i’m going to fall asleep.

    microsoft’s bloggers are basically “embedded” journalists. ra ra ra!

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  • http://ftrain.com Paul Ford

    It definitely looked pretty ungrateful, and cheesy, when Bosworth hectored the open source community to “finish the job.” From my view, though, there’s not a lot Google *can* give away without losing competitive advantage. Infrastructure and search code? Interface code? Almost everything they do runs on commodity hardware, and is accessed by fairly thin web interfaces over HTTP–which, to me, indicates that anything they give away as open source could be taken up and used by competitors, or by open source folks, in short order. So it makes sense that they’d contribute back to the open source community quietly, at the library level, improving filesystems or whatever; giving away things that compile and run would be giving away the keys to the store.

    I think if Google wanted to improve its standing in the open source world, it should create a system like SourceForge–an open incubator, with lots of free bandwidth and free accounts for developers. Or much better, since SourceForge exists, they could build a system for hosting Creative Commons-licensed media; they could then leverage this archive in their searches in a lot of different ways, as they do with DMOZ. They should host Wikipedia, too; it wouldn’t even be a line item to them, and Wikipedia is always struggling to keep its hardware running. If Google focused on making free, publicly licensed content easily available, and easy to download and re-use, it would mitigate the fact that they don’t open much of their code. Free Google wikis for everyone! Or rather, goowikis!

  • Dan

    Do No Evil is a play on words or Hanlon’s Razor to be specific which posits “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

    The ‘Do No Evil’ statement is an idiosyncratic and puzzling choice of words for a company.

    Hanlon’s Razor is widely recited within the hacker community. When Google, being part of the hacker/puzzle-cult, states ‘Do no evil’ it probably means ‘Don’t be stupid’. Malicious behaviour, or ‘evil’, is often mistaken for the behaviour of shortsighted, uneducated individuals.

    Or maybe I’ve read too much into it…

  • Dan

    Adding to that Hanlon’s Razor point of view. The Do No Evil puzzle is aimed at Microsoft.

  • http://www.nutch.org/blog/cutting.html Doug Cutting

    Paul Ford commented that “there’s not a lot Google *can* give away without losing competitive advantage”. On the contrary, much of Google’s competitive advantage is not technology, but rather culture and brand. Google’s technology can be cloned, but building a group of people dedicated to keeping a huge system running smoothly at a very high level of quality is much harder. Over time, such an organization develops a reputation (aka brand) that is hard to supplant. That said, many folks within Google seem to agree with your assessment, that technology is their core competence, and this causes them to make unfortunate decisions, like operating with alienating and unnecessary secrecy and isolation.

  • http://ftrain.com Paul Ford

    Doug, you’re right — I was looking at it from Google’s POV (I’m a huge Nutch fan, BTW, and enjoyed your talk last year in NYC at WWW2004).

    But I don’t think we can expect much of a cultural shift from a company that believes so strongly in the value of its IP. At least if they started to support open-source content like Wikipedia, they’d be actively doing good, and it could conceivably give them unique search opportunities, without striking fear into their shareholders. Everyone would win a little.

  • http://www.nutch.org/blog/cutting.html Doug Cutting

    Bosworth, in his response, sounds like his knickers got twisted. Methinks the dude protests a lot…

    He compares “what Google gives them for free every day from Search to Scholar to Blogger to gMail to Picasa” to open-source software contributions. But Google Search is not given as freely as Apache or GNU Software. Google Search is part of a for-profit venture that involves a lot of taking from advertisers. Giving away software as open source provides some remunteration, but less concrete. So the comparision is a bit apple and orangy. Not that Google Search isn’t a great thing. I use it all the time, but I don’t think its production is much more philanthropic than that of TV news.

  • http://www.scroogle.org/ Daniel Brandt

    Public Information Research, Inc., a nonprofit public charity, has been scraping and ad-stripping Google’s main search results for over two years. Now their site at scroogle.org is providing the source code for their scraper. At PIR we believe that scraping and ad-stripping Google for nonprofit purposes is legal. We’ll be curious to see how Google reacts this time — Scroogle.org got blocked for a few hours about a year ago, but that stopped after we changed servers and Google couldn’t find us. Now we’re back on an easy-to-find server to see what Google will do. In all those 2.5 years, Google never contacted us, even though they were well aware of who we are and where we are.

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