Why does Google keep copying itself?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 11 2010 4:31 PM

Déjà Google

Why does the search company keep duplicating its own efforts?

Google Buzz.

For a firm with world-changing ambitions, Google is remarkably insistent about its area of expertise. "It's best to do one thing really, really well," the company's mission statement declares. "We do search. With one of the world's largest research groups focused exclusively on solving search problems, we know what we do well, and how we could do it better."

Who is Google kidding? Sure, the company is really, really good at search. But that's not the only thing it's good at, nor is it the only thing it's trying to be good at. In addition to search, there are at least three other areas in which Google excels—e-mail (Gmail is the best mail program on the planet), Web browsing (Chrome, too, flattens its rivals), and location services (you'll never get lost with Google's maps and local listings). It does many other things nearly as well (Android, Google Docs, Calendar), some things not well at all (Knol, anyone?), and a few things that seem sure to be amazing given some more time (Google Books).

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For those of us who've been watching the company for years, the scope of Google's efforts isn't surprising. What's far more mystifying is how often the company duplicates its own efforts. Hardly a month goes by anymore without an announcement from Google that promises to change everything. More and more, these announcements sound like déjà vu.

Take this week's new product, Google Buzz, a status-update-sharing service built into Gmail. Buzz is Google's second recent effort to remake how we communicate. Last year, the company launched Wave, a very novel, very confusing, and at this point nearly useless system that also seeks to revolutionize online information sharing. Buzz also has a bit in common with Google Talk, the company's instant-messaging platform—both Buzz and Talk allow people to send status updates to their friends. When you update your Buzz status on a mobile phone, it also records your location and broadcasts your position on a map. You know what else does that? Google Latitude, a see-where-your-friends-are service that Google launched a year ago. And Latitude was itself a copy of another Google service, Dodgeball—a friend-mapping site that Google purchased in 2005, neglected for several years, and then shut down last year.

At a press conference to unveil Buzz, Google execs said they'll likely find ways to integrate some of these overlapping features (it's already possible to tie your Talk status into your Buzz status). But Buzz isn't the only place where Google is competing against itself. Not long ago, many in the tech world wondered when Google would build its own operating system. Today, it's building two—Android and the forthcoming Chrome OS. Google is so fond of social networking that it's got two places for you to set up an online profile, Orkut and Google Profiles. A few years ago, the company launched Google Bookmarks, a nifty feature that let you save your bookmarks online; if you bookmarked something on one computer, it would be available everywhere else. Google was apparently so pleased with that effort that it added a separate bookmark-syncing service to Chrome. Now, if you bookmark something on Chrome, it will show up in Chrome on your other computers—but it won't show up in Google Bookmarks, because that's a different beast entirely.

Why does Google repeat itself so often? The short answer is that it's got a lot of money, a lot of smart people, and expansive ambitions. It's also working in an industry that is notoriously unstable. Google is chaotic by design—engineers are encouraged to spend time and money to go beyond their assigned tasks and think up their own projects. This structure has a few obvious advantages over top-down organizations. Everyone at Google is an innovator. The company can tap into a large pool of ideas, and employees are given a sense of ownership over their creations. Some of Google's best products—Gmail, for example—came about because coders hacked together their own software without their bosses' prodding.

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