Practical Technology

for practical people.

Google Opens Up About Open Source


The rumors never stop.

Google Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc. will release a Web-based StarOffice desktop suite. Google will soon announce a new operating system.

The truth isnt anything as dramatic, but it does show a company that not only supports open source, but relies on it every day to keep the best-known search engine and allied businesses running.

In a Ziff Davis Internet interview, Chris DiBona, Googles open source program manager, said that while he cant “talk about any future products,” he also added that, to the best of his knowledge “Google has no plans to release an operating system or an office suite.”

“I like the ideas of thin-client office programs, but I cant address products,” he added.

That said, though, DiBona added, “We do support and use open-source programs. For example, we hired people to help make better.”

For instance, Google employees, DiBona said, helped make 2.0, load faster.

Still, while Google has no plans to release end-user open-source programs, it actually already releases open-source code and programs that developers find useful.

DiBona cited Googles release of its AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML)-based AJAXSLT as an example.

“It may not be interesting to most people, but AJAX is mellow for developers. It lets them code more flexible user interfaces for Web browsers. Were trying to release more of this kind of code.”

Looking ahead, DiBona sees Google releasing “more development tools. We like showing people some of the cool things we do. We want to share more code, but programming tools like our Core Dumper or CPU profiler dont get the hype.”

All of Googles current open-source projects can be found at Google Code, the companys software site.

In the future, existing Google programs, like the Google Toolbar, Google Talk and Google Desktop may be made open source.

But, for now, “Google is focusing on releasing underlying technologies and concentrating on lower-level functionality programs,” said DiBona.

Still, he said that Google has “a long list of software to open source and weve got to start somewhere.”

When? “We have no timelines,” replied DiBona.

Within the company itself, “most Google developers use Linux desktops.” Its not just the technical staff that is Linux and open-source users and supporters. It comes from the top.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Googles founders, are both “passionate about open source” according to DiBona.

Googles open-source staff itself is very small. There are only four or five employees tasked to the office according to DiBona. But, that doesnt tell the whole story.

“We leverage our engineers. With so many engineers at Google who are involved in open-source and Linux, many of them use part of their time to work on open-source projects.”

A recent example of Google hiring open-source friendly developers is its recent hire of Sean Egan, lead developer for the popular open-source GAIM IM client, to work on Google Talk.

DiBona also expects the open-source staff to grow.

“Were tasked to make more open-source code,” said DiBona, who has been with Google since August 2004.

“We like to do this open-source stuff for both our industry and for our users. It makes a level playing field for everyone.”

That even includes proprietary programs. For instance, “once Firefox started really competing, Microsoft was forced to make Internet Explorer better for its users,” said DiBona.

“Before Firefox, IE was stagnant. Now that Microsoft has competition, theyve started to improve it. This kind of competition is good for all of us.”

And this kind of improvement by competition doesnt happen just on the PC side, according to DiBona.

“If you look at rise of Apache web server to dominance, you can see how Microsoft has had to make IIS (Internet Information Server) better. You can see why other Web servers have disappeared.”

According to NetCrafts September 2005 statistics, Apache has almost 50 million Web servers operating on the Internet, while IIS, a distant number two, has about 14.5 million servers.

Google has also been supporting open source by encouraging students to develop it. The most prominent example of that was its $2 million “Summer of Code.”

“It was my thought that through a program like this we could infuse new blood into some long-established projects,” said DiBona.

So Google gave more than 400 young programmers a chance to work on open-source projects over the summer of 2005. More than 40 open-source groups received help from the new programmers.

The Apache Software Foundation led the way with 38 projects, followed by KDE with 24 and FreeBSD with 20.

The results were “remarkable and blew pass anything I was expecting. We saw a 93 to 94 percent success rate. They did some amazing work.”

To read about Google merging map and local sites, click here.

At this time, there are no hard plans for a summer of code 2006, but DiBona wants to do one. “Were still evaluating everything but I want to do another one with new students.”

Indeed, “we had thought about doing a winter of code, but the students are busy with classes.”

In the meantime, though, Google has donated $350,000 to a joint open-source technology initiative at Oregon State University and Portland State University.

“Supporting the projects and institutions advancing open-source software and hardware helps ensure the continued success and advancement of open-source technologies.

“The teams at Oregon State and Portland State have done great open-source work in the past and were excited to back their joint efforts,” said DiBona.

“This partnership between Google and important research universities is yet another indicator of the continued evolution and maturity of the Linux and open-source markets,” said Dan Kusnetzky, IDCs VP of system software research in a statement.

In addition to fostering open-source developers efforts and releasing code, Googles open-source office, which is under Google engineering department, is “making sure people are using open-source software properly in their code. We also have a training mission to make sure they understand what you can, and cant do, legally with the code according to its license.”

So it is that Google, while not producing the kind of headlines that some people wish that it were with its open-source efforts, is nonetheless strongly supporting, producing and using open-source.

A version of this story first appeared in eWEEK.

Leave a Reply