Can a Business Really Do No Evil?

I took a week off last week and a lot happened while I was away (literally) shooting the stars. I want to talk about two of those events today, the Oracle / Java debacle and the Google / Verizon debacle.

First, let’s recap. Google and Verizon partnered early last week on a proposal sent to the law makers in the US on their vision of net neutrality … on mobile devices. As anyone could have predicted, that was not a great way to make friends on the Internet. The proposal itself is interesting, but what makes it really interesting for me is that Google’s own philosophy and motto over the years as always been “Do no evil”. Not sure many people still agree with this one.

This was followed earlier this week by Oracle’s move with regards to Java. When Oracle bought Sun, it acquired amongst other things Java, a piece of technology that’s kinda-but-not-100% open source. Actually, a big part of it is, but it ends up the tech is certainly not free of patent issues. In a move best described as a great way to kill off any good will you might have had with the open source community, Oracle decided to go after the money and sued Google for its use of Java in Android.

And in a move that proves that Oracle is not afraid of completely destroying it’s open source credibility in just one week, the company announced the end of Open Solaris.

If I was a MySQL developer, I might be nervous right now. Remember when Sun bought MySQL and we were all nervous about what they would do? Well, the shark has been eaten by an even bigger shark and this one’s not afraid to shake things up.

All of this and more importantly yet, the reaction to all this online reminded me of something I’ve been saying for years : a public company is neither your friend nor your enemy. It’s a company whose primary goal is to make its investors richer by making the action trade higher. Good / bad products, open source good will, good reputation, etc. are all just by products of this goal. It’s true for Oracle and it’s true for every other business out there.

I’m a big fan of Apple’s products lately, but I’m under no illusion that the goal of Steve Jobs is really to make the company more profitable. Often I don’t mind their decisions, but sometime I do (as with the ipad being unable to share the iPhone’s data plan).

Being a fan of a company is fine, but we need to keep in mind that these entities are not our friends.

It’s Not About The Rendering Engine Anymore

Today, RIM launched their new 6.0 OS (and the new BlackBerry Torch) and by doing so, added its name to the ever growing list of products using WebKit as the basis for their Web browser. RIM’s move isn’t really all that interesting: they had no good browser anyway and it’s not as if they are first to do this.

The interesting discussion in my opinion is what Microsoft should do. Back in the Netscape / IE war, Microsoft was convinced that Web browsers would ultimately replace desktops apps (they weren’t wrong) and they invested a lot of money in creating Internet Explorer. That war is still on, although nowadays the players have changed. With IE, we’re now talking about Firefox and Chrome as the main competitors.

But what really changed however, is that the HTML/CSS rendering engine shouldn’t matter that much. We went from a 1 browser = 1 engine model to a model where we now have a couple of really good open engines powering many browsers.

Controlling the world’s browser market is one thing, but as Google is proving, that doesn’t mean you need to have your own engine. Chrome is built on top of Web kit, just like Safari is and countless mobile web browsers are. These products are still competing with each others and are still different from each other yet they are built on the same foundation.

What that means of course, is easier Web development and less browser-specific bugs. This is why I think Microsoft needs to stop developing its own engine and start using either WebKit or Gecko. Both of these are well done, support many web standards and are fairly easy to integrate in a product.

Of course, such a change can’t happen overnight and it’s a difficult thing for Microsoft to do, but I do believe that in the long term, it’d make the Web a lot better. Trident, Microsoft’s rendering engine since IE 4 isn’t exactly renowned for its spectacular support for standards. And really, I’d much rather see Microsoft invest 18 months developing Internet Explorer proper rather than waste 80% of that time coding the engine.