How Long Before Google Squashes the Better GMail Firefox Extension?

by Matthew Russell

I just noticed that Tim O'Reilly blogged about the Better GMail Firefox extension. As a GMail user, I think that this extension is a great addition, but it makes me wonder -- how long before Google absorbs it into the core GMail application and renders it obsolete? And if that should occur, does it conflict with Google's "Don't be evil" mantra?

Perhaps I'm speculating a bit to assume that Google would even consider incorporating all of the Better GMail features and render it useless -- but why wouldn't they? After all, they have an incentive to make GMail the best possible application that it can be so that they can continue harvesting data, targeting advertisements, making a profit, etc. Besides, there are all of those IE users who will probably want those extra features too, right?

So...would Google stealing someone else's GMail hacks constitute any form of evilness at all, or is it fair game? When would they be crossing the line? Could Google could avoid these predicaments by handing out spot bonuses for ideas that are good enough to "steal"?


Kyle Johnson
2007-04-24 14:46:34
I think there's a continuum here:

angelic: pay the original authors for the hacks
good: acknowledge original authors if they are moved into the core
somewhat evil: not crediting the original authors
evil: changing gmail just to break these extensions

Interesting, Better Gmail isn't even an original extension. It simply bundles up a bunch of greasemonkey scripts and makes them accessible to folks (like me) who don't use greasemonkey. All the original authors are credited for their work. Does that make Better Gmail good or evil?

2007-04-24 15:32:52
Why shouldn't they use it? That's the point of it being open source to begin with. You can't steal something that's freely shared; it's only stealing, and therefore evil, if the author doesn't want you to have it.
Deepak Jois
2007-04-24 16:54:34
Just to point out, some of the hacks in there are from Google employees, like Mihai Parparita
Pete H.
2007-04-24 17:03:44
Google's "don't be evil" is like when someone says "I'll be honest with you" or 1984's doubletalk or the "blue skies" or "healthy forests" initiatives. Just do what you will and call it the opposite, like censoring results in China or weighting paid results or scanning your gmail to keep forever, ready for subpoenas -- well, carry on. I don't think incorporating an open-source Firefox extension ranks, actually.
Tony Williams
2007-04-24 18:14:34
Google will probably behave the same way Apple have in similar situations.

Look at the way Apple behaved with Dashboard. They added it when there was a product that did a similar task and didn't pay anyone anything.

I also seem to remember either a Firefox extension or Greasemonkey script that added a "Delete" button to GMail. Google obviously saw that as a good idea as they added their own, making the script unnecessary.

I expect that they will watch to see which of the features of "Better GMail" are widely adopted and if they can add them without discomforting those of us who don't want them they'll do it. They will almost certainly do it without paying anyone or even giving them much recognition.

# Tony

Simon Hibbs
2007-04-25 00:28:21
I can't see any comparrison with the Knfabulator/Dashboard siauation at all. This is what Open Source software such as Firefox is all about. Are the Greasemonkey scripters stealing from Google when they modify and extend it's service? After all they're getting a free ride off the service Google has provided.

If Google can improve the service for more people more conveniently, then they actualy have an obligation to their users to do it. Talking about stealing is OldThink that fundamentaly misses the point.

2007-04-25 01:22:25
If Google were to extend the functionality of GMail in this way they couldn't by any stretch of the imagination be accused of damaging Gina's livelihood, because she doesn't sell the extension. In any case, so far as I can tell, all she's done is re-package what others already did. Heck, if Google did implement new functions she could even get a new column out of it: "Here's how to hack your life with the new functions in GMail".

"Evil"? If you want to see evil look at Cho's actions or what is going on in Sudan. Google's adding functionality to GMail wouldn't even be mildly objectionable. Anyone who's looking to brand Google with misdoing would do better to ask questions about what they're doing with everyone's data and why they just bought the notorious Doubleclick.

Whether Google would want to add these functions to GMail is big question, anyway. Some people seem to like them very much, but that doesn't mean everyone would. I cast an eye over them and failed to see anything I'd use there. But in any case, although I do use GMail, I make use of the POP3 interface and handle it in a proper email client. And I haven't got a copy of Firefox on my machine, anyway. The only time I go into the web interface is if I'm away from my machine or to delete the contents of the "Sent" mail, which Google archives. I suspect I'm atypical, too, and most GMail users use the web interface, but that that doesn't mean that most GMail users would find these features of much use or even of any interest at all.

2007-04-25 06:47:11
@Sherm : I see your point, but I wonder if it isn't a fair comparison to compare it to plagiarism? Seems like a grey area to me if you take someone else's good ideas, profit by them, and don't at least throw someone a bone.

@Deepak : Interesting, I didn't realize that.

@Pete H. & Mike : True, even if Google outright stole open source GPL'd code or some such thing as that, it doesn't really compare to the loss of human life or 1984-esque issues. Still, I wonder if it doesn't say something about "someone"'s character if they would take good ideas, absorb them, profit by them, and quietly move on without acknowledging the originator at all? Seems like a slippery slope that leads to a bad place on the one hand, but seems like perfectly acceptable business practice on the other...I guess if it's truly "public" code that has been explicitly tagged as such, then it would be just fine. Without that explicit "I don't care" from the author though, I personally would be inclined to at least give someone a good mention. (I have mixed feelings about it if you couldn't tell.)

@Simon Hibbs : Interesting comment about "fundamentally missing the point." In a way, I can see how you would feel that way...but then again, we have companies trying to patent "1-click purchasing", tabs in user interfaces, and other things that (to me) seem totally unreasonable -- and yet, to various intellectual property "experts", these things seem perfectly reasonable.

As an interesting aside to ponder, I wonder if it would be possible (or plausible) for someone to patent a UI feature, create a hack to incorporate it into someone else's app (say GMail), and then slam the parent company with a patent infringement if they did absorb the feature. Anyone have any details on something like that?

2007-04-25 11:31:29
»And if that should occur, does it conflict with Google's "Don't be evil" mantra?«

Uh, why should it? Not I personally subscribe to the don't-be-evil marketing blurb, but extending Gmails feature set for the benefit of *all* users, not just the ones with Firefox, can hardly be considered "evil" IMHO. If some "hack" has to walk the plank for the majority of users, so what? That something that sooner or later can happen to (almost) every hack, see the various discussions around Apple and Mac OS X in this regard.

2007-04-26 15:15:56
Why would this be evil? Someone came up with a feature they felt would make Gmail better. Google, seeing that yes it is better and popular, decides to implement that missing feature.

This is different from the Konfabulator/Dashboard conflict in that the extensions are open-source. Plus the idea of widgets didn't originate at Konfabulator, they just happened to be the most popular implementation at the time.

2007-04-27 16:32:24
Fair game if you ask me. The writers of the original firefox extension would no longer have to pay for upkeep or bug fixes in time or money, and everyone would benefit.. I like the gmail interface.
2007-05-04 05:00:55
It might help the discussion if we had a few facts straight,

1. Better Gmail is just a compiled firefox extension out of a bunch of open sourced greasemonkey scripts

2. The original greasemonkey scripts were mostly written by Mihai Parparita who works for Google. They've been around for a long time, see