Google on “Open”: Myopic Self-Focus

by on December 23, 2009 · 13 comments

It may be possible to wring consistency from the “open” manifesto Google SVP of Product Management Jonathan Rosenberg published earlier this week, but I can’t.

He correctly extols the virtues of openness in technology and data for its pro-competitive effects. Closed systems may be profitable in the short run, but they are weak innovation engines:

[A] well-managed closed system can deliver plenty of profits. They can also deliver well-designed products in the short run — the iPod and iPhone being the obvious examples — but eventually innovation in a closed system tends towards being incremental at best (is a four blade razor really that much better than a three blade one?) because the whole point is to preserve the status quo. Complacency is the hallmark of any closed system. If you don’t have to work that hard to keep your customers, you won’t.

But his paean to openness draws a tight line around Google’s profitable products:

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.

This is a fascinating exhibition of self-focus. Rosenberg finds that the benefits of openness cut off just exactly where Google’s profitability kicks in (credit: Rob Beschizza on BoingBoing).

If Google were to open its search algorithm, torments would befall users, he says—but much moreso torment would befall Google because their competitive edge in search and ad placement would shrink. Their competition would have a real chance to catch up and lower the premium Google could charge advertisers.

Now, would opening the algorithm allow gaming? Yes. And a new burst of competition and creativity would further improve search and ad serving across the entire Internet—exactly the kind of improvement Rosenberg says Google strives to produce.

Rosenberg’s attempt to strip Google down to a coherent philosophy of openness fails—search and ad-serving are a codpiece staring you right in the face. Or, if you prefer, Google’s heart is closed…

SVPs of product management are free to be wrong about philosophy, of course. It doesn’t matter at all—except when Google tries to impose its philosophy on others. And in the debate over ‘net neutrality regulation it has done exactly that.

Two years ago, Google sought and got “openness” conditions from the Federal Communication Commission on the 700MHz spectrum auction. Purchasers of it can’t use it as they see fit. For fear that it will cede profits to providers of transport, Google supports public utility-style regulation for network operators. Google thinks that “openness” rules to protect its profitability are ‘good for the Internet’. But they are just seeking competitive advantage through regulation.

This extraordinary self-focus—projecting one’s own interests onto others—is mirrored in the intellectual debate about openness versus proprietary systems. As I wrote in a 2007 book review, property rights and openness advocates both think their theories “explain the world.”

In fact, Google (and the Internet) benefit from openness some of the time and “closedness” some of the time. Open is not an organizing theory for Google, and it’s not an organizing theory for the Internet—just for parts of each.

Rosenberg’s myopia—thinking that what is good for Google is good for everyone—is the same as the myopia that politicians acquire after years in office. Fawned over by special pleaders and staff, they come to believe that their interests are the public interest. They honestly—but wrongly—believe that their defeat in an election would harm the country. So it is with Google’s support for net neutrality. L’Internet, c’est moi.

If Jonathan Rosenberg and the nice folks at Google were self-aware, it would be fair to call them hypocrites. But they are unlikely to see Google’s self-serving openness ideology as simply that. In Washington, D.C. we see all the time how hard it is to get a fish to talk about water.

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