<i>Why open source is good for Google</i>

OPEN WIDE: Google's open source-friendly strategy is paying off, Google's head of engineering for Australia and New Zealand says.
OPEN WIDE: Google's open source-friendly strategy is paying off, Google's head of engineering for Australia and New Zealand says.

One of the most remarkable features of the internet is the way it took shape. No single company or individual came up with the idea, patented it, and built it.

Since its origins many years ago, the internet has been a collaboration between computer scientists around the world, made possible by the open, non-proprietary nature of the technology on which it's built.

The same open philosophy and shared technology standards have driven the development of many of the web's applications, which are increasingly developed on 'open source'. Open source software makes its source code available so developers from all over the web and around the world can see it, contribute to it, and build upon it.

This isn't some niche pointy-head community off building tools and platforms that the average person has never seen or experienced. On the contrary: it's the chat service that you use, it's open source browsers like Mozilla's Firefox or Google's Chrome, it's the recently launched Android mobile phone operating system.

Open source has well and truly entered the mainstream in New Zealand. Radio New Zealand's web presence is built on open source. A policy released by the Ministry for Justice says that, offered one open and one proprietary software package, the open source one would be preferable for reasons of supportability and lower lifecycle cost.

And on top of using it to power their businesses, some of New Zealand's most exciting and successful companies are turning open source into a business offering.

Wellington-based Catalyst IT is building open source solutions like content management systems and CRM management tools for companies as large as Telecom New Zealand and the TAB. Silverstripe has built their business on creating open source websites for their customers, offering them freedom from license frees and software obsolescence along with the benefit of thousands of developers around the world contributing to the code and constantly improving it.  

At Google, we love open source for a few reasons. First, it speeds innovation. Open source lowers the barrier to entry for users, website owners, and application developers. It means there can be another Google, or another Yahoo!, started from someone's garage in Auckland or Arhus with very little capital required, because the building blocks for success are freely available.

It also reduces inefficiency. In the past, developers wasted time and resources to write web code to cover basic functions common to most websites-like registration pages.

Nowadays, thanks to open code-sharing initiatives, developers don't need to waste time reinventing the wheel. Moreover, as more sharing of code occurs, weaker solutions are weeded out in favor of more robust models.

And finally, it makes economic sense. Although it may sound counterintuitive to give something away for free, the resulting popularity and innovation pays off. Consider Google Maps. Soon after we released it, a group of software developers reverse-engineered some of its source code and 'mashed up' our maps with some of their own products, creating a new third product. We quickly realised that making our code freely available would encourage innovation and new products, and by extension, increase use of our maps.

Today, Google benefits by letting thousands of developers around the world innovate on and extend the reach of our products; those developers benefit by never having to build or pay for a platform on which to build.

We want to see open source continue to thrive, so we release more than one million lines of Google code into the wild each year and provide infrastructure to over 160,000 open source projects on code.google.com.

We also support conferences like Webstock 09, an event taking place in Wellington this week that is one of the premier events in the southern hemisphere for web developers. For a country the size New Zealand is to have the presence it does in web development, and in technology in general, is remarkable. We'd love to see New Zealand's technology community continue to grow and flourish, and events like Webstock help that. 

A flourishing web development community in New Zealand is not just good for the users of the web - it's good for New Zealand's technology entrepreneurs. If New Zealand is to create world-beating technologies and businesses, the country's best technologists need input from the best software minds around the world, and to have their code and their offerings improved and built upon in order to scale and interoperate.

New Zealand's talented developers have a brilliant built-in test market for new products that they want to take global, given that Kiwis are among the heaviest internet users in the world.

We'd love to see New Zealand technology entrepreneurs making the most of the strong local open source scene, collaborating to build cutting-edge new products, testing them with a tech-savvy local market, and launching them on the world stage. Hopefully via events like Webstock, these connections are being made, ideas being generated, and companies being launched.

The web of the future is an open platform on which developers and companies share their technology to allow for even greater distribution, interactivity, and innovation. And that's good news for everyone from the small business owner in Timaru who uses an open mapping application to show his customers how to find him, to the developer in West Auckland who reaches thousands through his applications.

* Alan Noble is head of engineering for Google Australia and New Zealand