Google: the Godfather of Open Source?

It's well known that Google runs its vast array of servers using a custom version of GNU/Linux. But this is only one aspect of its support for free software. Others include its Summer of Code, now well established as an incubator of both coding talent and projects, and more recently its open source code repository, which offers a useful alternative to Similarly, in porting Picasa to GNU/Linux, Google has made contributions to Wine, while open source projects in Sri Lanka have been the beneficiaries of more direct help, to the tune of $25,000.

But Google is also operating behind the scenes to bolster free software in other ways. For example, it came as a surprise for most of us to learn that the Mozilla Foundation was earning some serious money – figures of $72 million were bandied around - from the use of Google search as the default for Firefox's search engine. This deal alone must effectively pay for a good chunk of the Mozilla project.

In January 2005, Google hired Ben Goodger, the chief engineer for Firefox, in what is proving to be just one of several such moves by key open source coders. At the end of last year, Guido van Rossum, the creator of Python, also joined Google. And most recently, Andrew Morton, the Linux 2.6 kernel maintainer, has announced that he is leaving OSDL to work for the company.

This represents a significant shift in the way the free software community works. Originally, of course, people beavered away on their projects as best they could in their spare time while working or studying. During the first dotcom boom, the early open source companies began hiring the top programmers: kernel coders like Alan Cox, David Miller and Stephen Tweedie went to Red Hat, while many others were snapped up by Linuxcare.

After the dotcom meltdown, key people were forced to find new jobs, with several ending up at the increasingly important OSDL. Against this background, Google's growing collection represents a return to the earlier pattern of concentration of programming talent at one company. But this time, their work is only indirectly related to Google's principal markets.

This is a shrewd move on Google's part. For by employing people like Goodger and now Morton, it is ensuring that the projects they work on – Firefox and Linux – benefit from their full attention, without the need to worry about things like earning a living or keeping management happy. In fact, this is by far the best way for Google to undermine Microsoft's position, with the added bonus that it is not even perceived as taking a hostile stance. Indeed, the company line seems to be that it does not regard Microsoft as a direct competitor, but this is clearly window-dressing.

There is another, less obvious, benefit. Recently, there has been some debate as to whether Google is doing enough to fulfill its moral obligations to the open source world. The argument is over the extent to which Google should be opening up its code, given that much of it is based on free software. As well as legal obstacles, there are also practical ones: the code may be obscure and in reality not much use to "ordinary" users.

In a sense, though, supporting open source hackers is an even better way for Google to give back to the community than simply throwing its own programming "over the wall". The code these people generate is precisely what their respective projects need, rather than what the company produces. Moreover, the more such coveted positions are created, the more working on free software will be seen as a clever career move.

The debate over what responsibilities companies that use free software internally have to open their code was not just about Google. Another major beneficiary of open source software is Yahoo. The latter has been very active in acquiring Web 2.0 companies like Flickr and, which are certainly aligned with the open source world, but it is a long way behind Google when it comes to supporting open source coders directly. Just as it is in Google's interest to hire free software coders to work on public projects, so Yahoo would do itself a lot of good – in several senses - if it started paying a few alpha geeks to hack for the good of the community, and not just the company.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.



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GodFather? Oh please! I've

Anonymous's picture

GodFather? Oh please! I've yet to see Google release a Linux version of anything they develop for Linux first. Summer of Code is a great effort but purely driven to find the best talent as the 1st priority. Shelling out to Mozilla - well duh, Google is a search engine - paying a little money to ensure tons of hits to your site and advertising is the main goal. Google, like all companies wants nothing more than to stay ahead of its competitors - and that is no place for opensource or anything open for that matter because it would never get the priority it demands.

Won´t believe this

Anonymous's picture

Google is doing the same like MS did long time ago. Hunting the best programmers whereever they could find them. Google is a commercial company and I won´t believe that you will find open source code from Google without certain interests.

Open sourcing Code equally or more important than Hiring few

hanishkvc's picture


It is good to know that google is hiring open source developers so that they can concentrate on their open source work rather than worrying about how to earn a living in parallel to working on open source projects.

However if google is not open sourcing some of its code which it should have open sourced from a pure ethical point of view (but not doing it by hiding behind some short comings in the existing GPL or other open source licenses - feel/guessing that it may be mostly related to web based servicing ...) Then it is a bad thing that google is doing and it can no way be justified to be ok just because they hire few open source developers or support few open source projects moneyterily.

If someone tells that they don't think that its worth opensourcing their code, because people may not understand the code or may not have any use for the code then they are talking garbage here. If all the initial developers of opensource code had worked with the same mentality as above then the open source movement wouldn't have been the great movement to be reckoned with that it is today.

Yes there might be people who are mentored slowly into open source projects, but at the same time you will find a lot of people silently contributing or using opensource code/project with out having any mentor to guide them because they have some circumstances which they feel is best resolved using open source projects and then learning the abc's of the project on their own based on the code available to them and by experimenting with that code.

NOTES: As I don't keep track of events on the opensource front actively I don't know if google is guilty or not. But if any company (google or otherwise) as a attitude that what ever code they are working on which in turn is directly or indirectly built on open source projects, is not worth opensourcing just because they feel others may not understand it or may not have use for it, then this is NOT a GOOD TREND NOR ATTITUDE and NOR IS IT ETHICAL. And no one should praise such a company and justify that a better thing for such a company to do is (a) to hire few open source developers to let them work on their open source projects, or (b) contribute moneyterily to open source projects or (c) mobilize people to work on opensource projects. What I mean is even though (a),(b) and (c) above are in itself good things it can in NO way justify the stealing (if I may use such harsh word) of efforts of other opensource developers however small it might be. Because it goes against the fundamentals of the open source movement, which are essential to keep the opensource movement alive.

"can in NO way justify the

the daniel's picture

"can in NO way justify the stealing (if I may use such harsh word) of efforts of other opensource developers however small it might be."

As I understand it, the GPL doesn't require Google to distribute the code to their custom GNU setup unless they distribute the software. If they keep the software internal, they can keep the code internal as well. And "stealing"? "STEALING"? Are you joking? Stealing by building on past innovations? Stealing by using open source code *for what it is made for*? Sure they could do a huge service to the community by releasing code, but I'd hardly call it stealing if they don't.

Lack of clarity

Glyn Moody's picture

I think part of the problem is that it's not entirely clear what code Google and others should be making available. After all, they are not distributing the code in a traditional sense, and so, it could be argued, do not need to open it. Maybe GNU GPL 3 will make things clearer in this respect.

Google and GPL

Tom M.'s picture

"I think part of the problem is that it's not entirely clear what code Google and others should be making available."

GPL v2 is pretty clear about when you have to make your source code available. I simple don't see why anyone thinks Google does something wrong in this respect. btw. summer of code is a great initative!

Yes Google is a Godfather

Andrew's picture

But the problem is that at the end the father can kill his kids - Unfortunately it is normal thing for big corporations like Google

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