Google: Friend or Foe of Ubuntu?
Google and freedom
Google enjoys a pretty favorable image within the free-software community. In some respects, it deserves this reputation, as it strongly supports many open-source projects. On the other hand, Google is reluctant to open the code of most of its own software. Given this hesitancy, can we trust the company to be always on Ubuntu’s side?
Google and freedom
Google does a lot of good for free software. It has sponsored development of wine and contributes patches to Ubuntu. Many of its employees use a modified version of Ubuntu on their company desktops. And as one of Microsoft’s chief competitors, Google is an ally of Linux by the simple logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
While it contributes substantially to open-source projects, however, the search giant rarely releases the source of its own software. With the exception of anomalies like Google Gadgets, which were open-sourced last summer, or the Chrome web browser, the majority of popular Google applications–from Google Earth to the Picasa photo editor to most of its web applications–are proprietary and closed.
Google’s use of closed-source licensing puts it in an awkward relationship with Ubuntu and other projects that are built, first and foremost, around the principle that source code should always be open, and that users should have the right to modify and redistribute it as they see fit. It’s hard to view the company as a genuine friend of Linux when it fails to practice what its donations to free-software projects would seem to preach.
What comes after the war?
I therefore worry whether Google is really committed to the free-software community in the long run. Given its lack of demonstrated belief in the value of open-source licensing when it comes to its own software, does the company support Ubuntu merely as a convenient element in its larger strategy to combat Microsoft? When the Windows monopoly on desktop computing is finally broken, will Google continue to dump its money and resources into open-source projects?
Or, like the Soviet Union and the West after 1945, will the relationship between Google and the Linux community devolve into hostility in the absence of a common enemy?
Realistically, the point where Ubuntu and related projects will no longer be de facto allies of Google is a long way off, as Microsoft doesn’t show signs of breaking anytime soon. But unless Google gets more serious about practicing, rather than merely supporting, software freedom, I don’t know how much I trust its promise to do no evil once it no longer has a strategic reason for working with Ubuntu.