September 20, 2006

Google China's open source ambitions

Author: Chen Nan Yang

Google seems eager to become the front door to the open source industry. For Google China, however, open source holds an even greater importance to the company.

"Why does Google use open source? The reason is very simple -- we must take our fate into our own hands. To China, the situation is just the same," said president of Google China, Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, during a talk at the 2006 Open Source China Conference held in Beijing on August 24 and 25.

In his speech, Lee said that Google owes much to open source. Without it, he said, Google would have spent more than $100 million on development. "But there are more important reasons why Google chose open source," he said.

For example, open source gives Google a freedom it would not have if it used proprietary software products. "We have so many servers in the world and we always need to revise the software. If we buy software from other companies, it may take several weeks, sometimes even several years, to make any change. But now we can make it by ourselves right away," Lee said.

Open source software affords Google the flexibility it needs to be able to respond to market demands. Since Google can redesign its software anytime, it can follow market changes quickly.

Open source also gives Google better control over sensitive business information. "If we buy software from other companies, they can tell how many servers we have from how many we pay. Now, that's only our own business," Lee said.

Lee's speech resonated with that of his counterpart in the conference, Ni Guangnan, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who also expressed a similar opinion of "taking our fate into our own hands." Ni says that China is promoting open source as part of its strategy of being an innovative country, for national information security, and to solve the software pirate problem. He estimates China's open source industry will boom in upcoming years.

That's just what Google needs since losing the leading position in the Chinese search engine market two years ago. Its main competitor, Baidu.com, is a quick learner, rapidly developing and offering almost the all same services as Google. Lee has joked that Baidu's imitation "is the best compliment to Google." But actually a Google-like Baidu.com, with better marketing and relationship-establishing skills -- which are always not Google's strong points -- can easily surpass Google in the Chinese market.

Google China not only can't take back its throne from Baidu, but also lost the second position to Yahoo China this year, according to Analysis International, a Chinese survey company. Last month, Google China denied rumors that Lee will soon leave his position as president only a year after coming to Google from Microsoft, but the rumors show that Google China's unsuccessful business is well-known in the country.

Today, Google China is eager for new ways to score in the Chinese market, and its use of open source is no doubt a good choice for several reasons:

First, open source can help Google boost its strength in China more effectively. This year, Google founded a Product Research and Development Center and hired 100 software engineers in China. Lee says the engineers have done a good job that hundreds of engineers in other companies could never do. This achievement, he says, is because "we are standing on the shoulders of the predecessors of open source."

Second, open source can help Google find more common ground with the Chinese government. To develop in a country like China, Google needs to establish mutual trust with the government. Under Lee's direction, Google China has tried several ways to do that, but seems to reap nothing but a damaged reputation in return. Now, driving on the same fast lane of open source together, Google stands to get more support from the Chinese government.

Third, open source can help Google push its localization tactics on a long-term basis. Lee promises that Google China will contribute more to local open source communities and spend more on training young local open source programmers.

But in China, open source is just in its beginning stages. There are still no mature open source communities here, and local companies see it mainly as a new business opportunity. So Google should try hard to persuade China to work with the company. The one who eats crab quickly may eat more, or be pinched.

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