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Google/Sun: Overhyped or Undervalued?

Somewhere along the line during my fine public school/private college education, I was introduced the idea that human behavior patterns exhibit a remarkable similarity to the simple pendulum. First they swing one way, then the other. Want proof? Just take a look at the trajectory of the comments regarding today’s Google/Sun announcement. Yesterday these guys were going to change the world, today, well, today the mood’s a lot different. Om says it’s a cheap publicity ploy, Nick Carr says that the announcement is of less interest than the news that Pamela Anderson getting a restraining order, Techdirt says its straight out of 1999, and Dana Gardner says that Google’s pillaging Sun with the impunity of a king.

What gives? Apart from the aforementioned human tendency to mimic the simple pendulum, the basic complaint here is simple: there was very little of substance to the announcement. And that part, actually, I agree with. The difference between a webified OpenOffice and a bundled Google Toolbar is, after all, considerable. The let down, in that sense, was almost inevitable. Little kids everywhere went to sleep with visions of that shiny new bike dancing in their heads, and woke up with a lump of coal.

Personally, I was hoping for a bit more than we got, but tried not to get carried away. What, after all, was delivered when Sun partnered with Microsoft all those months ago? Not a whole hell of a lot. One has to believe, too, that both Google and Sun wanted desperately to provide more than they did today. They either chose not to take the wraps off some of the fruits of the partnership (not likely) or weren’t ready (more likely). So the real question is: why make the announcement now? Why this timing? It’s a good question, but not one I have an answer to. I expect to get it, but I don’t have it now.

The really interesting here though is that most of the folks weighing in have focused more on what wasn’t said that what was. Because Google didn’t announce that they were adopting OpenSolaris, and Sun didn’t announce a browser based version of Star Office, the announcement was a big waste of time, says the conventional wisdom. Well, I don’t buy that.

As I told the audiences in my inaugural appearance on public radio (which Jim and Terri, at least, caught) and later on Steve Gillmor and Mike Vizard’s AttentionTrust podcast (not to mention the 20 or so people who IM’d in today ;), this deal is about two companies that are remarkably well aligned. They’re such logical compliments to each other that in retrospect this deal seems obvious. You remember the “Network is the Computer” vision that Sun’s been touting for better than 20 years? Well, that’s Google, as Jonathan Schwartz has been only too happy to tell audiences in the last few presentations I’ve seen him give.

The benefits to Sun from this deal are obvious to the point that they’re not worth detailing. Forget the PR win from buddying up with the new hotness that is Google, the folks from Mountain View are from all reports insatiable consumers of infrastructure equipment which, it just so happens, Sun sells. Those two factors alone were worth the complication of bundling the Google toolbar into the JRE available at Java.com.

But the really interesting question, as far as I’m concerned, is where Google goes from here. Given the effort required in partnerships, of course, it’s certainly possible that this goes nowhere. If you look closely, however, it seems that Google might be deadly serious about the technology collaboration areas discussed only vaguely on today’s calls. Why else would they bother to sit on the Expert Group for the next release of the J2SE? Why might they hire Joerg Heilig [1]? And why might they be, according to Friend of RedMonk Gary Edwards (my original source on the Joerg hiring, incidentally), going after OO.o/SO developers? As a lark? Because they can? Seems unlikely. Google may not have a grand vision or overarching uberplan as the population tends to believe, but neither are they careless.

So if one assumes that the participation in the JCP and the rumored hiring activity is done with a clear goal in mind, the question is what goal is that? From the Java side, I think the benefit to Google would be clear: just about every client side application they’ve developed to date has been Microsoft specific. The Google Toolbar was originally IE only, and both the Google Desktop and Google Talk are Windows only. This is in stark contrast to their thin-client offerings, which in general could care less what operating system you run on. Might Java be a bridge for those applications to other platforms? Could be.

And then there’s OpenOffice.org. To me this is far and away the most interesting of the potential collaboration areas (with the possible exception of OpenSolaris, but that was not really discussed a great deal on either call unlike OpenOffice.org). One of the questions I was asked at least a dozen times between yesterday and today was what Google might bring to the table with respect to the Microsoft Office alternative so often in the news of late? Well, resources for one. A web version? Possible, but I think it’d be very different functionally than the current codebase – a lot simpler. While I’ll leave that speculation for another time – as we’d be here a long time – I will say that even a tacit acknowledgement of OpenOffice.org as a credible platform from Google would be a big win for the project. If they can further it technically, all the better, but Google’s got sufficient clout at this point to have value just as a marketing channel.

The other interesting aspect of the deal that no one’s talked about yet that I can see is one that’s a bit outside my coverage: the hardware. After today, I’m really curious as to whether or not Google – the datacenter to end all datacenters – is looking into Sun for power reasons. Again, it’s not a subject I’m well versed in, but one only has to pump a tank of gas to see that power isn’t cheap any longer, and I’m just curious if Google’s looking not just at Opteron but Niagra as a means of reducing what has to be its single biggest expense: electricity. Food for thought.

Anyhow, until such time as Google and Sun choose to illuminate us – or some enterprising reporter ferrets out the details, we’re limited to speculation about just what today might mean. But just on the basis of what I heard today – or didn’t hear – I’m inclined to believe that my contention that vendors like Google and Sun are out not to win the desktop, but to make it less important, may actually have legs.

[Disclaimer: of the above, Microsoft and Sun are clients, Google is not]

[1] As an aside, I’m still surprised that no one made a bigger deal out of that news when I mentioned it a few weeks ago.

Categories: In the Headlines.

  • http://xminc.com/mt/ Anthony

    IBM ripped out part of OpenOffice and is integrating it into their Websphere Workplace product. I have a feeling that Google could do something along those lines.

  • http://jroller.com/page/jaimec Jaime Cardoso

    Why would Google re-invent the wheel when they can cooperate with Sun, influence the development Sun already has made and focus more resources in turning technology into customer value?
    Unlike IBM, Google is not a Sun competitor so, why remake the work already made when they can just use it?

  • http://subclock.blogspot.com/ Mike Olson

    I think this is a preannouncement of a partnership that will develop in more interesting ways later.

    Google's giving everyone 2.5GB of email, searchable, for free right now. Why not make that 2.5GB of desktop space? And why not, then, change StarOffice to use an SSL interface to a remote file system, managed by Google, where all your documents live? Search, sharing, collaboration, support for mobility are all easier if there's a central repository you can always reach, and that you can trust.

    Microsoft bought Groove this year. Groove provides just these services.

    Companies like desktop.com started four years ago but failed because there wasn't enough broadband to make remoteness attractive, and they weren't adequately funded to provide the storage space for free. Google has neither of those problems.

    If I were working at the Googleplex, that's what I'd make happen.

  • http://jroller.com/page/jaimec Jaime Cardoso

    Mike, and when you add that to several ground breaking solutions Sun is / has been working in the last few years like Multithreading, Hierarquical Storage Management, JES Portal Server and the Starportal you have Sun has a business enabler and google building on top of the technology to give services to users

  • Chris Rijk

    I would not be surprised at all to see Google buy lots of Niagara servers.

    Lately I've seen Jonathan mention a few times that for "search companies" their highest single cost can be the electricity bill (whether for the whole company or just the data-center, I dunno). For something like Google, a 1U Niagara server would likely provide significantly more performance (throughput) than the best 1U x86 servers while consuming significantly less power.

    Let's say for the sake of example that a 1U Niagara server would provide 2x the performance of the best dual-core Opteron server, at half the power consumption (for the whole system). This is quite possible but obviously highly speculative – and actual results would depend on Google's software. That would mean for the same performance, the Niagara solution would consume one quarter the power and take up half as much space. If Google's electrical bill is 50% of (datacenter) running costs, then Niagara would reduce their running costs by 37.5%. And they'd have a lot more room for expansion.

    Even if the Niagara systems had similar price/performance compared to Opteron, it could win easily on running costs – Niagara is a very big chip, so will be expensive to manufacture.

  • Raghu Romeo

    We have been constantly hearing that Google is going to upstage Microsoft by creating web Office kind of products. I was thinking that Google's freshly hired rocket scientists will be doing this. But, if Google's way of doing this is by recruiting Open Office developers and partnering with Sun, then Microsoft will be having a good laugh. This only proves the point that Microsoft at any point is more probable to Succeed in a web Office product because its MS Office is way superior.

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady stephen o'grady

    wow am i behind on my comments. anyway:

    Anthony: they could very well take a subset of the code and repurpose it, or they could take the knowledge of the folks who built and start from scratch borrowing here and there. the real question at the end of the day is the same: does Google have ambitions at an office productivity product? i don't know, but my guess is yes.

    Jaime: i'm certainly not for reinventing the wheel, but for me it depends on what they want to do. if they want to deliver a client-side version, i think they'd be foolish to not start with the OO.o codebase. if it's a web office suite, however, i frankly don't know how portable the current codebase would be.

    Mike: totally agree. i think there's definitely more to come from these folks, and that we'll be looking back on this as a significant announcement. the viability of hosted applications has been radically improved over the last few years, and Google's in good position to take advantage of that.

    Chris: yup, we're definitely on the same page there.

    Raghu: i guess i don't share your lack of faith in the OO.o engineers. products evolve over time, and just because the current OO.o codebase is large and complex does not mean that its maintainers are incapable of making improvements. how many applications that you know of – Word included – couldn't be improved the second time around?

  • http://www.michaeldolan.com Mike Dolan

    "Adobe and Sun Announce Partnership: Adobe will include a JRE option with Acrobat Reader…" who would care? (false by the way)

    Everthing is pure speculation at this point, but real business will prevail. How does Google benefit here? They could take OO and repurpose it themselves and they could partner with any hardware vendor to get gChips if they wanted. I can think of only 1 thing such an agreement gives Google access to that no one has picked up on but it's still just speculation.

    We can all dream of ways industry players could leverage complementary assets/portfolios to create innovative synergy. Profits and reality tend to get in the way. Too bad, b/c if buyers and users could pick of pieces of different companies and combine them the way they want we'd have some cool stuff coming out.

    Speculations… One things clear, we were all duped into consuming a publicity stunt and wasted our time.

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  • http://www.2pauls.com Saha

    Google's giving everyone 2.5GB of email, searchable, for free right now. Why not make that 2.5GB of desktop space? And why not, then, change StarOffice to use an SSL interface to a remote file system, managed by Google, where all your documents live? Search, sharing, collaboration, support for mobility are all easier if there's a central repository you can always reach, and that you can trust.