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In a cutthroat world, some Web giants thrive by cooperating

And yet, Google Chrome is free.

"Remember," said Hal Varian, Google's chief economist, "Chrome is open-source. So any other browser that wants to incorporate pieces of Chrome into their system, they're welcome to do it."

So Microsoft could copy entire chunks of Chrome's programming code without asking permission or paying a fee - and use it to build a better Internet Explorer, which theoretically could lead to other Internet advances.

Why would any business give away a product built on expensive man-hours to a competitor?

For one thing, it's a way to support the company's own innovations. Google has expanded its notion of "search," and the current generation of Web browsers generally cannot support features such as Body Browser, Google's interactive, three-dimensional rendering of the human body where users "can peel back anatomical layers, zoom in and navigate to parts that interest." They can "click to identify anatomy, or search for muscles, organs, bones and more."

The tool could be popular with users, and also with advertisers. For instance, an organization like Stanford Medical School's Cardiovascular Institute might pay top dollar to get the attention of a user spending lots of time online poking around in the circulatory system.

Chrome is one browser where users could surf such a tool. As Google promotes its use far and wide, perhaps Chrome is helping to trigger a tectonic shift toward Web standards that permit more sophisticated search products.

Of course, one tech giant is not like the others. Apple, which is the second-largest U.S. company after Exxon Mobil, has a grip on tech consumers' imaginations and money and has built a war chest of more than $50 billion to expand its own powerhouse business in tech gadgetry. Sharing is not its thing.

"Open systems don't always win," Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs said at a quarterly profit announcement in October. The visionary behind the iPhone called Google's competing mobile operating system, Android, a "mess, for both users and developers."

Compared to Apple's managed oversight over iPhone manufacturing and personal approval process for all third-party iPhone applications, Google's unmanaged policy leaves the Android platform more fragmented. Not only are manufacturers encouraged to develop competitors to Google's Nexus phone, applications can be published without prior approval. Yet, both Android and the iPhone are wildly successful, suggesting competition and cooperation each have their place.

How Facebook avoids face-offs

Cooperation is not just a strategy between Internet firms but within them as well. Facebook, with its systematically hands-off managerial policy, is a departure from old-school American business culture.

Some history: Convinced that capitalism's adversarial nature would disrupt employee teamwork, the 20th-century architects of modern management adapted the military's chain-of-command model for the corporate leadership chart. Frederick Taylor, the intellectual father of industrial management, contended that the inevitable conflicts between peers required the authority of a superior to arbitrate.

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