Google Launches Project Hosting

It’s common knowledge that Google likes open source software. With the search engine’s latest move to create an open source repository, it’s getting behind the open source community in a big way. For various reasons, however, it’s getting mixed reviews.

The company unveiled the new service at the O’Reilly Open Source Developers Conference. It’s called Project Hosting, and like all Google betas, it’s free to use, though you do need to have a Google account. The service is supposed to give open source software developers a web-based ability to track bugs and other issues with their software, collaborate, and otherwise handle the many details involved in working on and coordinating an open source project.

 

The screen shot above shows the Project Hosting home page. You can see that the company is trying to keep the same clean interface for which it is famous (as you’ll see in another screen shot in the next section). It has adopted the “release early, release often” motto popular within the open source community. Judging from some of the comments this particular service has received, however, it’s one beta that may have been released just a little too early.

Google seems to be willing to accept the flak as the price it pays to make this work. Project Hosting was created by a regular, small team of Google developers; one wonders if this is one of the benefits of the “20% time” that Google gives its engineers. The goal of the service, according to Google Engineering Manager Greg Stein, is to make issue and bug tracking simpler. “We wanted to get it in peoples’ hands and get our feedback so we can shape it as we get informed,” Stein explained. “We’re launching it very early because we want some feedback.”

I’m going to start this section by assuming you’re interested in posting a project. If you aren’t, as you can see from the earlier screen shot, you can always search for projects. It’s pretty amazing what some people are up to already; there’s at least one open source project that’s dedicated to creating a Python shopping cart to work with Google Checkout, for example — and the latter has been available for less than a month!

Anyway, when you sign into your Google account, the link at the bottom of the screen shot in the previous section that says “Sign in with your Google account to create a project” changes, not surprisingly, to “Create a new project.” Clicking on this link takes you to a screen with several text boxes.

The first text box is labeled “Project Name.” Google is rather strict about what you can and cannot post into this box. To quote from the instructions: “Your project’s name must consist of a lowercase letter, followed by lowercase letters, digits, and dashes, with no spaces. The project name will be part of your project’s URL.” Indeed, I tried to put something different into this box (accidentally; that’s what I get for not reading the directions first!) and was unable to do so.

The second text box is labeled “Summary.” Google explains in the directions that “Your project’s summary is a one-line description that will be shown when the project’s name is shown.” That may be true, but Google has clearly decided to keep users’ options open for this section. I would have expected a section described as a one-line description to have a character limit, but it didn’t appear to. It let me go on for sentences: “This is a test of Google’s Project Hosting system. I wonder how much space Google allows me to take up in this box? Should I just keep going until I run out of space or what? Hmmm, very confusing; why would Google allow so much space for something that’s supposed to be merely a summary of the project?”

The third text box is for the description of your project. Google wants you to write this in plain text, explaining that it “will be the main content of your project’s home page.” I didn’t even try to see how much I could type into that box, given how much space I had in the summary section!

Below the description is a drop-down menu for you to select your license. Google gives you the option of choosing from seven of the most popular ones. You are only allowed to choose one, however. Stein explained in his talk that “We’re taking an actual position and saying that we don’t want to encourage license proliferation…In general, we don’t like people doing the dual-license thing.”

After you have chosen a license, you add labels to the project so others can find it. You can add as many labels as you like. Interestingly, I found that my “Create Project” button became active without any labels at all; it seemed to be choosing the open source license that was required to make it active. Still, I added the label “test,” and was able to find it again by searching for that label in the search box on the Project Hosting home page; in fact, mine turned up in the first position! Google displays only a portion of my terribly long summary as a link to the project, so it does behoove those with projects to keep it short and sweet in the summary, no matter how much space Google gives you.

I have to tell you up front: I’m not a programmer. So I really can’t tell you too much about the usefulness of the various features of the service. Fortunately, other people who are programmers have already written about it. 

The issue tracking feature has been cited as being particularly useful, but some complain that it still falls short of what’s already available with alternative software development project management systems. While Google wins plaudits for the clean interface, it may have gone too far in that direction with this service. Personally, I rather like the way Google sets up project pages, with tabs labeled Home, Issues, Source, and Administer. It gives the site a very straightforward appearance.

Those familiar with the Subversion software version control system may recognize this service as a rebuild of that system (indeed, the web page for projects hosted by Project Hosting mentions the Subversion repository as the place where source code for projects can be viewed). While open source projects can store code with this free service, Stein noted that it cannot handle downloads as of yet, no doubt rather frustrating to many programmers.

There have been other problems reported with the system. As you would expect, there is a Google group dedicated to Project Hosting, where you can check out the threads yourself. One particular problem seems to have arisen from something that was done with good intentions. Google worked with SourceForge, the leading open source software repository, to reserve all SourceForge project names. The intention was to prevent name squatting on Google’s new service. However, SourceForge project administrators who have tried to move their SF projects over to Google’s service have run into difficulties. Apparently the system isn’t letting them grant themselves approval to use the name! This problem might be fixed by the time you read this.

Google is not the only company in the open source project hosting space. The aforementioned SourceForge boasts more than 100,000 registered projects and more than a million registered users. And SourceForge is far from alone. There’s Tigris and Freshmeat, for example, and IBM and Sun have open source repositories (as do other corporations).

Google insists that it did not create Project Hosting to compete with SourceForge. In fact, Stein cites the company’s stance on dual-licensing as one reason that certain open source projects might be better served by other repositories. At least one wag has commented skeptically “The goal is not to compete with SourceForge, but rather to give open source projects an alternative to SourceForge? Yeah, and my goal in writing this is not to be sarcastic, but to show how stupid that statement is with acerbic wit.”

There are certainly those who feel that SourceForge needs the competition. Ed Burnette in his blog for ZDNet observed that “Everybody likes to pick on SourceForge. It’s slow, CVS is unavailable for days at a time, it took years to add Subversion support, it has an issue tracker not much more advanced than a stone tablet…” He thinks the Project Hosting interface “has several things going for it.”

It’s hard to tell how Google plans to monetize this latest service, however. At the moment, it isn’t ad-supported; that could come later, of course, but one wonders what kinds of ads would fit into a space where developers work on software projects “for fun,” in their spare time, and don’t charge people for them. Perhaps Google figures that most open source developers (like its own engineers) also have regular full-time programming jobs, and might therefore be a good audience for certain technology-related ads. Time will tell.

What does this mean for those of us who do SEO? If you use open source software at all, or have considered doing so, you’ll now be able to find it easier – and heaven knows there are plenty of projects from which to choose. Given that most open source software is actually free to use, this could cut down on your own and your clients’ expenses if you’re a web designer as well as an SEO.

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