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Google and Microsoft in trading places shocker

One goes closed. The other goes open

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Open...and Shut Microsoft and Google seem to be trading wardrobes of late. Microsoft used to be easy to pick out: black-hat-wearing-bad-guy constantly in hot water with global antitrust authorities and married to proprietary software and not-so-open standards.

Google donned a white hat, talked a lot about openness, and was loved everyone (except Facebook and Microsoft).

While Google continues to talk up the value of openness, it is Microsoft that increasingly links rhetoric to reality, with Google closing off code to protect its interests.

I'm so confused!

Google has taken Microsoft's place as global antitrust authorities' whipping boy. Google strenuously insists upon calling Android open source, but then closes off the code for pragmatic reasons. While I support those reasons, Microsoft has its own pragmatic reasons for keeping Windows and Office closed: billions in profit every quarter. And Google, despite articulating its WebM video codec and the W3C's HTML5 as the future of video and the web just released its new movie rental service based on Adobe's proprietary Flash player.

Yes, there are good, pragmatic reasons Google chose to stick with Flash for the service. But Google increasingly has good reasons for not being as open as it likes to sound.

Not that Microsoft is a paragon of openness and virtue, either.

Old habits die hard at Microsoft. It continues to harass open-source competition with lawsuits or threats of lawsuits. And a significant amount of the Google-is-evil antitrust lobby is being funded and fueled by Microsoft. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is unlikely to be sainted any time soon.

But there are clear signs that Microsoft is evolving as it struggles to catch up with the 21st Century.

Take the web. Microsoft lumbered into the web app world with its tried-and-once-true playbook: push the world to adopt Silverlight and lock a generation of developers into Microsoft tools, then crank up the cash register and collect license fees. The problem is that web developers had already voted with their downloads and were snubbing Adobe Flex and Silverlight in favor of open standards like HTML5 and Javascript.

Rather than fight the trend, Microsoft adopted it, and has been an active proponent of HTML5 ever since - though not without some hesitation, it should be noted. Why? Because an open web is very much in Microsoft's interests, as The Register's Tim Anderson explains:

[Microsoft] realizes it must have a broad-reach platform alongside Windows to succeed in the diverse world of mobile devices and increasing numbers of Mac computers, and that its efforts with .NET and Silverlight are not able to be that broad-reach platform.

"Hah!" You say, "Microsoft is only open when it suits the company's interests!" Yes, but that's true of every company. Some just happen to have business models that benefit from open code, while Microsoft, until now, has not. The web is a game changer, and Microsoft's game is changing.

Take Microsoft's Skype acquisition. In the past, Microsoft would buy a company and try to monetize its assets through license fees. But in the case of Skype, as ZDNet's Mary-Jo Foley posits, advertising may well be the revenue engine.

The more Microsoft finds revenue outside software, and the more Google struggles with the complexities of shipping code that runs on devices, not in the cloud, the harder it will become to pigeon-hole Microsoft as closed/black hat and Google as open/white hat.

And so we see Microsoft partnering in new markets even as Google goes it alone. Expect more of the same. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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