Just because Google so obviously loves the idea of cloud computing, don't think the company doesn't care about what happens at the other end of the network connection, too.
As former President Bill Clinton used to say, there's a third way: Google wants to improve technology on both the server in the cloud and on the client running a Web browser. The search giant will detail its approach to at least 2,800 developers paying to attend the first Google I/O conference this week in San Francisco.
There's been a long-running tension among computing companies about where the brains of the computing operation reside. In early years, central servers did all the work and people connected through "dumb terminals" that did nothing but display text. Then the personal computer revolution took off, and companies such as Microsoft whose software ran on these "clients" prospered. Now it's the Internet era, and Google wants a little of both.
"We are going to make the cloud more accessible. And we're going to make the browser more capable," said Vic Gundotra, Google's vice president of engineering in charge of developer evangelism and open-source software.
Clouds and clients and connections, oh my
Google isn't showing its Google I/O cards beforehand, but here's my translation of Gundotra's opening keynote themes--"Client, Connectivity, and the Cloud"--into some specific projects under way at Google. For client, think Google Gears for running Web applications even when offline. For cloud, think Google App Engine, a site to house Web applications. And for connectivity, think Android, the mobile phone software package.
The Android software itself is under development at Google, with help from a number of partners in the Open Handset Alliance. To make that project successful--in particular its promise as an open foundation with a vibrant programming community--there needs to be software for Android, too.
Google has been trying to jump-start the Android developer program. It launched a developer contest that drew 1,788 submissions. I'm guessing Google will announce the winner from the top 50 finalists (and click here for a PDF of the top 50 Android apps in slideware form).
More newsworthy, though, is the likelihood of a second software development kit (SDK) for Android. "We are working on those things in the next day or so," Gundotra said of the SDK last week. "Android is a big portion of how we make pervasive connectivity useful."
Google vs. Microsoft
We in the media are doubtless too susceptible to narratives that pit one company against another, but in Google's case, there really is a big rivalry with Microsoft. The search giant is trying to make into reality the fear Microsoft had in the 1990s about Netscape, that the Web browser would supplant the operating system as the way people used their computers.
Gundotra has seen it from both sides. Before joining Google in 2007, he was general manager for platform evangelism at Microsoft, the culmination of a 15-year stint at the company.
But does Google want to dominate the Web platform the way Microsoft has with the operating system platform? Emphatically not, said Gundotra, who took pains to note that the I/O in Google I/O stands for "innovation in the open."
"Today, the most interesting and dominant platform is not the closed, proprietary platforms of the past, but the open Web...It's the platform adopted by all of us because it isn't controlled by any of us," Gundotra said. "Google's motivation is to move the Internet forward as fast as we can."
That's not to say Google isn't interested in bringing home the bacon. But its Web platform work has only an indirect connection to Google's revenue and profits.
Gundotra repeated what's become a familiar refrain to me as I've asked various Google executives about how their initiatives make money: "We have an economic reason to move (the Web) forward. As it gets richer, better apps, it gets more users. More users using more apps leads to more Google searches, and that leads to more revenue for us," he said.
Android is another target aimed at Microsoft. It will become freely available open-source software--or at least 8.6 million of its 11 million lines of code will be--with the specific intent of providing an alternative to Microsoft's mobile version of Windows. Wind River Systems wants to profit from it directly by helping phone companies build it into their products, but Google thus far has voiced no such ambition.
Lighting a fire under Web 2.0
App Engine and Gears together are centerpieces of Google's attempt to bring the Web alive, and we can expect some action there at the conference, too.
"You can assume from that ranking what we're working on, but not what we'll announce next week," Gundotra said. And he wouldn't offer a specific time frame. "We're actively working on it. It's difficult for us to know until development gets further along."
The company is pleased with the progress so far. It's granted App Engine access to 60,000 developers so far, said Tom Stocky, director of product management for developer products.
Gundotra promises that App Engine isn't a lock-in strategy to lure application developers irreversibly to Google's part of the cloud.
"It is hosting the same open LAMP stack people are used to," he said, referring to the combination of the Linux operating system, Apache Web server software, MySQL database software, and Perl, Python, and PHP programming languages to run Web applications themselves. "If you decide you don't want to use it, you could easily revert back to using your own data center."
Well, maybe not easily. App Engine ties into the Google-only BigTable service for housing data. But the company is working on an export ability for data, and there's an open-source implementation of BigTable, Stocky said.
It's hard to find Google Gears used beyond Google Docs, Zoho's competing online office applications, and Google Reader. Gundotra is happy to declare the project a success in another way, though: its influence on version 5 of HTML. Indeed, a draft of the HTML 5 specification includes interfaces for handling database storage and offline work.
"You're right on the cusp of seeing a slew of apps come out that use the HTML 5 and Gears features that redefine what a Web app can do," Gundotra said. "We're working to drive that innovation, and also to drive that back into standards...We think we contributed to the evolution of the Web."