Alright… what's with Google getting all warm and fuzzy and open source-y on us all in the last week? First it was Open Social, the open source social networking initiative, and now it's the Open Handset Alliance and the new Android platform for mobile phones. Eric Schmidt is beginning to sound a whole bunch like Scott McNealy or Linus Torvalds, doncha think?
There are two kinds of open source companies, kids.
There are companies that see open source as an article of faith. Think of Red Hat, or Digium, to use two very well known examples. Each of these companies are strong proponents of the open source model, and open source everything they do. They're religious about open source.
At the other end of the spectrum are companies that are strategic open sourcers. For them, open source is a tool. They use it in their own products to reduce their costs. They open source bits of their own code in order to cultivate a developer community.
Strategic open sourcers are always the second and third place players — the also-rans. Fundamentally they believe in the value of their IP, and wouldn't willing give it away unless forced to. But they don't have the momentum to take out the incumbent. So they open source when it's clear that price or control are an issue in the industry.
Google is a strategic open sourcer. The Open Handset Alliance is a play to take on Microsoft, RIM and Symbian. Open Social is about trying to rally the industry to slow down Facebook's momentum and the inevitable loss of ad revenue to Microsoft. Throw a little chum in the water, goes the reasoning, and perhaps we'll get some sharks to bite.
From where I sit, Open Social looks still born — a functionally light widget interface that all the players will drop as soon as it becomes clear it's not adding value. The Open Handset Alliance, on the other hand, might have some depth. It's too early to tell.
And if anyone at Google tries to tell you they've got the open source religion, ask them when we're going to be able to get our hands on the source to the search engine itself. Oh yeah… forget it, it contains the search engine equivalent of the Colonel's 11 herbs and spices, page rank — and a deeply guarded trade secret.