Google’s corporate mantra is, of course, the oft repeated (and generally meaningless) “Don’t Be Evil”. While this is a nice motto, sometimes the harsh commercial realities of Google’s core products stand in the way of this mantra. Case in point: Google’s recent announcement that their previous support of the XMPP instant messaging protocol would be dropped for a proprietary standard. XMPP is no new and untested protocol – it has been an integral part of Talk for ten years or more and is the protocol that enables communication to occur between users on different messaging networks – it’s the common lingua franca that allows people to communicate outside of silos.
It was apparent that in the last couple of years, Google had been losing market share to Office 365. In an attempt to stem that tide, and make it’s own products stickier, Google has foregone doing the right thing (support of an open standard) for the more palatable commercial path. In doing so it joins other vendors – Microsoft and IBM for example, who also see IM protocols as a great potential nexus for customer locking. So what does this mean for users? Well now with Google’s new Hangouts messaging and video product, chat sessions only happen on Google servers, and it isn’t possible for Hangouts users to communicate across networks with people on other UC platforms that support XMPP federation.
I had a chat with Farzin Shahidi, CEO Unified Communications vendor NextPlane about the moves and the broader implications for messaging. As he pointed out, Google’s moves are arguably more evil than those of Microsoft and IBM who have never embraced open messaging – in some cases Google customers made their buying decision based on Google’s adoption of the open protocol. Google has now nicely done a bait and switch on these customers. The question therefore needs to be asked, what responsibility does Google have to its business customers who paid for a product based upon an open protocol? Google has a responsibility to enable its existing customer base to talk externally even if it has decided to take a turn in its direction or had second thoughts about its position to being open.
This is especially galling since XMPP was at the heart of the heralded, and thereafter forgotten, Google Wave product. A product that gained massive amounts of excitement (if, admittedly, minimal actual use). Commentators have gone on to question, a little sarcastically, what Google’s next move will be, dropping the support of Email protocol SMTP? Aaron Parecki created the following picture to suggest what an email equivalent of Google’s XMPP moves could result in:
Google is now a mature organization and this tension between commercial interests and “doing the right thing” cannot be regarded as simply a case of a company “finding its way”. Indeed Larry Page sounded a little duplicitous at Google IO when he said, regarding the lack of interoperability between vendors:
I’ve personally been quite sad at the industry’s behavior around all these things. If you take something as simple as IM, we’ve had an open offer to interoperate forever. Just this week Microsoft took advantage of that by interoperating with us. You can’t have people milking off of just one company
That on the same day that the company announced its own decision to forego interoperability for commercial gain. Don’t be evil indeed.
According to some research earlier this year on how many fortune 500 and 1000 companies use public-facing XMPP, around 10-15% do so. These are the same organizations that Google has been courting and telling that it does indeed have a mature enterprise ready focus. Some of these organizations are now going to understandably doubt that. But this goes far beyond just the XMPP decision – Google is trying to create a credible and compelling public IaaS offering – moves like this do little to increase large enterprises’ comfort that Google is indeed a good long term bet. Sometimes the right long term commercial decision is the wrong short term one. Google needs to be mindful of that when it next encounters a dilemma akin to the XMPP versus proprietary one.