Home Is Google Being Anti-Competitive?

Is Google Being Anti-Competitive?

It’s not new to suggest that Google is too big, too influential, or trying to glom onto too many important bits of the Web. But some recent discussionson Reddit and news of Google Dart has raised the question again. Is Google being anti-competitive or threatening the open Web? More precisely, can Google do what makes sense as a business and not be (or be perceived as) anti-competitive?

Google is, quite literally, involved to some degree in almost everything online. It started out as a search company and has branched into everything from the lowest levels (DNS) to the operating systems users employ to consume Web services (Android, ChromeOS). Along the way they have taken interest in alternatives to HTTP (SPDY) and created their own codecs (Web-M) and their own browser (need I say Chrome?), an API for browser plugins. And the list goes on. And on.

Taken one way, these forays into new areas look like Google trying to control the Web. One wonders, for instance, why Google found it more advantageous to build its own Web browser rather than continuing to contribute to Firefox. Does Google really need to offer DNS? Its own codecs?

The Case for Expansion

In many situations, Google makes a good case for branching out further. Take Web-M, for instance. Google has good reason to avoid the H.264 patent minefield, particularly when it offers one of the largest video sites on the Web and its own operating systems. Web-M might also be a competitive advantage for Google at some point, but it looks primarily like a defensive position.

The discussion on Reddit that sparked this most recent flare-up cites an email from Google’s Mark S. Miller about the future of JavaScript. It includes a bit about targeting Chrome first, which sounds a lot like Google giving their own properties an unfair advantage. But the cited parts don’t tell the full story. I recommend reading the full email, but here’s the full piece from which the scary part was excised:

We will strongly encourage Google developers start off targeting Chrome-only whenever possible as this gives us the best end user experience. However, for some apps this will not make sense, so we are building a compiler for Dash that targets Javascript (ES3). We intend for existing Google teams using GWT and JSCompiler to eventually migrate to the Dash compiler… Our approach is to make an absolutely fantastic VM/Language and development environment and build great apps that fully leverage it in order to help other browsers see the wisdom in following. Once Dash has had a chance to prove its stability and feasibility, we are committed to making Dash an open standard with involvement from the broader web community.

Is this an argument for Google being anti-competitive or against an open Web? I don’t think so. It could be poor strategy, but it’s not anti-open, at least given just this email as evidence.

Our approach is to make an absolutely fantastic VM/Language and development environment and build great apps that fully leverage it in order to help other browsers see the wisdom in following.

I’ve been, at times, fairly critical of Google. Their “open” strategy with Android, for example. The rather unpleasant pricing changes with App Engine. I’m not convinced that Chrome is a good thing. And I’ve quite a few issues with Google’s policies and enforcement around pseudonyms on Google Plus.

Not Attributing to Malice…

You’ve no doubt heard the quote, “never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity.” Or some variation thereof. In this case, I’m reluctant to attribute to malice what is adequately explained by Google’s developer-driven culture.

For the most part, Google’s touch-everything approach is not about squelching competition and openness. It’s about being an developer-driven culture that finds many areas on the Web in need of optimization. It’s not so much about putting roadblocks in front of others, but removing roadblocks that Google sees in front of its path. Why create, for example, Android? Because a phone ecosystem controlled by Apple, Microsoft, RIM, and Nokia didn’t bode well for Google with so much action moving to mobile.

Why create a competitor to JavaScript? Because Googlers have decided that they can do better. This is not unusual for developers to look at a language and be dissatisfied, and to decide it can be done better. What is somewhat unusual is to be in a position to do it again and make it succeed on a large scale.

Maybe I’m giving Google too much credit, but I just don’t see the company as “the next Microsoft” or whatever. The company bears watching, and a change in leadership could very easily take Google down a bad path. But the company as it is today seems to have its heart in the right place. What do you think?

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