Google's open source attempt to undercut Facebook

Google may be the new Sun Tzu when it comes to open source strategy. Matt Asay explains.


As much as we like to talk about the open-source community, it might be more accurate to describe it as an open-source club. No, not the kind you join, but rather something you use to pummel someone.

Take, for example, Google's open-source response to Facebook's Instant Articles.

Last week, news broke that Google and Twitter are collaborating on a response to Facebook's Instant Articles, with Google leading out on development. Instant Articles is a way for publishers to have their content show up faster (and looking better), particularly on mobile devices. The only hitch is that by doing so, they essentially cede control to Facebook's proprietary platform.

Google's response is to build its own accelerated web page technology and give it away.

In this way, Google is trodding a well-worn strategy: open source your competition's revenue streams. It's a familiar playbook, but the question remains as to whether it will work.

New ground, old strategy

"Community" is a grossly overused term in open source. It conveys a feeling of kumbaya; of developers holding hands as they pass code around the campfire.

This image of open source has never been real, and it certainly isn't now.

Almost from the day that open source emerged from the primordial soup of free software, it's been a capitalist haven. ("Community capitalism," as I once dubbed it.) Corporations, keen to embrace open source complements to their core, proprietary software and hardware, started hiring or developing committers to Linux and other projects, always with a view to driving revenue and/or wringing out costs.

As the market matured, companies started inventing projects as a way to bludgeon their competitors.

For example, when I joined Alfresco, we were very clear that we were an "open source Documentum." We, and others like us (SugarCRM, Pentaho, etc.) all formed to open source the crown jewels of our competitors, as it were.

More recently, we've seen projects like OpenStack formed to blunt the rise of AWS, among many other examples. And we've watched Google attempt to undercut Apple with open source Android.

This is similar to Google's newest attempt to open source Instant Articles out from under Facebook's feet.

Giving away Facebook's revenue

While Google has been an active participant in a variety of open-source communities, it's done more to inspire open-source projects (like Hadoop) than actually lead them. This is changing with the as-yet unnamed "cached web pages" project.

Facebook's Instant Articles aims to load pages up to 10X faster than they currently do, but it requires the user to be reading the article on Facebook.

It's an increasingly safe bet that readers will find their content through Facebook, with SimpleReach research giving Facebook credit for 20% of all traffic to news sites, a number that climbs considerably on mobile devices. Other data shows Facebook's hold on publishers to be even greater.

This, combined with Facebook promising to make publishers' content look and perform great on mobile devices, makes the 30% cut Facebook will take from associated advertising (if it sells the ads) a tempting offer.

But free might be even better.

At least, that's what Google hopes. Google can't afford to let Facebook run away with its growing mobile advertising revenue, so consider this "open source Instant Articles" an attempt to keep publishers out of Facebook's proprietary platform.

As Fortune's Matthew Ingram writes, citing sources familiar with Google's plans:

"With Google's offering, nothing is published on the company's platform per se, since it doesn't really have one in the same sense that Facebook does.... All the company wants to do, sources close to the project say, is provide an open-source alternative to the Facebook service. Unlike Facebook, which offers to sell advertising around the content and share the proceeds... Google doesn't want any part of the advertising revenue that users of the system might generate. Nor does it want to control where or when that content is seen by readers, according to the source. But it is concerned about the potential competitive threat posed by Facebook."

We've watched this happen in enterprise software for the past decade. It looks like it's time for the web giants to engage in open-source warfare, too.

For years, they've mostly been collaborative, working together on open-source infrastructure like MySQL, even as they competed for ad dollars. In a new twist, however, they're competing by open sourcing some of those ad dollars.

This could get interesting.

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