No one has embraced “open” and cross-platform technologies the way Google has — or at least that’s what the company would like for you to think. The company develops some of its best products for iOS, despite competing with Apple’s operating system with Android. It develops new services, like the Google Play game services or Hangouts, and makes them immediately available outside of it’s own ecosystem. And, of course, it is able to maintain its “open” image despite becoming increasingly “closed.”
It’s easy to confuse Google’s near-ubiquity with openness. Since the company has started to spread into every aspect of our everyday lives, whether it’s by Android’s dominance in the smartphone market, the popularity of its Chrome browser, or its decision to build great products for the runner-up, iOS. This allows Google to capitalize on a future dominated by people using multiple devices and operating systems, but it shouldn’t be confused for being “open.”
Consider the latest additions to Chrome, which now allows users to converse with Google on their desktops. This has the potential to be a major expansion of Google’s reach into our daily lives, continuing the company’s goal of becoming a ubiquitous presence instead of something users simply visit — and it’s only available if you happen to use Chrome already. While that probably won’t be an issue, considering Google’s claim that over 750 million people use Chrome (on the desktop and mobile) each month, but it’s hardly “open.”
The same could be said for other Chrome-specific tools and services. Google is fond of conflating “the Web” with “the Web as viewed by Chrome,” offering demos of new technologies that, at least for now, are less about the Web and more about Chrome.
“On the Chrome team, our goal is to make the web better, both on desktop and on mobile,” said Google’s VP of Chrome Engineering, Linus Upson, during the Google I/O 2013 keynote. “But that doesn’t mean loading the browser up full of features. The browser is a means, not an end.” While that might be indirectly true — additions to Chrome might convince other browser-makers to innovate as well — it’s foolish to think that Google isn’t improving Chrome so that it can continue to control the way we view the Web.
Then there’s Hangouts, Google’s new messaging service. There’s a lot to like about Hangouts: It’s well-designed, like many of Google’s other recent releases and updates; it’s available on iOS, Android, and the Web, making it easy for the vast majority of smartphone owners to communicate with each other; and it’s tied to users’ Google Accounts, which means that people won’t have to sign up for yet another messaging service. (And, of course, it allows for an endless number of “hangout”-related puns.)
But Hangouts isn’t as platform-agnostic as, say, Kik, which is available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and Ovi devices. And, unlike its Google Talk predecessor, Hangouts isn’t built on the XMPP standard used by Facebook Messenger, Skype, Microsoft Messenger, and other chat services. Users will be unable — at least in the beginning — to use Hangouts with third-party applications like Adium or Messages. Hangouts might be better than Google Talk, but it certainly isn’t as “open.”
Finally, there is the much-lamented death of Google Reader. Despite being used as the infrastructure for dozens of RSS-reading applications and services, Google decided to suspend Reader and force users and startups to wonder what the future of RSS might look like. This alone could be seen as a move against “openness,” but the truth is that Reader was never meant to power those services anyway; they were all using an “unofficial” API that many understood to be volatile from the start.
Now they don’t even have an unofficial API to build atop — but Google’s own newsreader, the Flipboard-like Google Currents, is still available for Android devices as well as the iPhone and iPad. Google killed a popular RSS-reading service that many had come to rely on for their news, but is still operating a “personalized” newsreader that most people probably haven’t even heard of.
None of this is to say that Google has an obligation to become the underlying infrastructure for, and main caretaker of, many of these products. It doesn’t even have to be “open” or cross-platform, really; Apple has shown just how well the “closed” and “You can develop for our platforms, but we won’t build anything for yours” approach can work. But it’s important to remember that, despite being more platform agnostic and “open” than Apple or most of its competitors (of which there are many), Google isn’t some beneficent magician that builds wonderful products and improves the Web without expecting anything in return.
[Image courtesy of Google]