Why can't Google be more like Microsoft?

Chrome OS and the wonders of closed open source


Jeff Haynie has a wish. He wishes that when building an operating system, Google was as open as Microsoft. Or at least as open as Apple.

He's well aware that Google likes to open source Android code. He realizes the company just freed code for an early version of its netbook-happy Chrome OS. And, yes, he heard über-Googler Sundar Pichai say that Google devs would work on the same Chrome OS code tree as developers outside the Mountain View Chocolate Factory.

But judging from the rather closed nature of the open source Android project, Haynie argues that Pichai's words were, shall we say, on the disingenuous side.

Lock Box

Google

(artist's representation)

Haynie is the founder and CEO of Appcelerator, a Silicon Valley startup whose Titanium development platform is a kind of Chrome OS counter-play. The open source platform lets you build native mobile and desktop applications using web-happy development languages, including Javascript, Python, and Ruby on Rails. Google's Chrome OS, by contrast, is a web-happy operating system that doesn't run native applications. If you can call that an operating system.

But Haynie's Titanium builds apps for Google's other OS. It churns out native runtimes for Android as well as Microsoft Windows, Apple's iPhone, and the Mac OS - among others. Having dealt with all three tech titans, Haynie much prefers the open practices of Apple and Microsoft to the preternaturally closed setup at Google. Open sourcing aside.

Apple and Microsoft at least provide developers with a near final version of a new OS months before it reaches the rest of world, letting them test drive the platform under a non-disclosure agreement. Before the iPhone 3.0 arrived, Haynie had more than enough time to get his ducks in a row.

But Google plays a different game. It says it's open. But in reality, it completes a new OS entirely behind closed doors. Then it dumps the final version onto the web just days before it reaches the commercial market. Android 2.0 hit the web little more than a week before it turned up on Motorola Droid phones and Haynie's customers started complaining about broken applications.

Google hadn't even warned devs that a new version was on the way - unless you count a Youtube video of giant eclair.

"Google pushes big snapshots of code to the open source tree only at certain times," Haynie tells The Reg. "It's not like, say, Mozilla. Everything Mozilla does is in the open. It's never a big surprise, like 'Hey. Here's this new piece of code called Android 2.0'"

Yes, it's nice that Google open sources stuff. As Google will tell you, the company has opened up more than a million lines of code over the years. But that says only so much about its development practices.

When Google VP of product management Sundar Pichai says that Google coders will work on the same Chrome OS code tree as external devs, you can't help but think he's misleading the masses. Yes, we have a snapshot of Google's preliminary code. But between now and the OS's official release next year, you can bet the real development will happen inside the Chocolate Factory - until Google thinks the time is right to open source another snapshot.

After the first Chrome OS netbooks arrive next year, Google will no doubt open source revised code. But until then, the developer world is on the outside, trying desperately to look in.

That's the way with Android. Google codes behind closed doors. Then it open sources. Then it goes back behind closed doors and codes a new version. Google played the game with Android 1.0. And then 2.0 ('Eclair'). And you can expect the same from 3.0 ('Flan,' apparently).

Yes, this is Google's prerogative. But for developers like Jeff Haynie, it's a hassle. And it's indicative of a much larger irony. As Google paints itself as an open company merely interested in the good of users and developers everywhere, it provides preciously little insight into what it's actually up to, leaving devs to wonder what role they might play in something that's shaping up to be a vastly restructured computing paradigm.

But surely the answer is obvious: Developers have almost no place in Google's grand plan - unless they're developing for the web. But there are doubts for web devs as well. And with Google dictating hardware terms for the Chrome OS - not to mention the swirling rumors of a Google-branded Googlephone - even hardware developers can't be sure of their place in Google's world.

Chrome OS isn't built for developers. It's built for Google. And online advertisers.

Next page: Playing dumb

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