The Lack of Innovation in Google’s Latest Products

Google’s going into retailing:

Google Inc. is aiming to challenge the e-commerce supremacy of Inc. by diving deeper into the fast-growing world of Internet retailing.

The Web-search giant is in talks with major retailers and shippers about creating a service that would let consumers shop for goods online and receive their orders within a day for a low fee, said people familiar with the matter.

Google of, say, five years ago felt like a very innovative company. Obviously they created the first Internet search algorithm that actually worked. They also completely disrupted webmail with Gmail. They completely disrupted web-based mapping services with Google Maps. They redefined what was possible within a browser with Google Docs. And along the way, they essentially created an entirely new web interaction paradigm in AJAX.

Something has changed since then, though. Google feels more and more like Microsoft. In the same way that Microsoft’s profits overwhelmingly derive from their dominant products of Windows and Office, Google’s profits overwhelmingly derive from its dominant product of web search. In the same way that Microsoft uses its cash cow to subsidize its entry into new markets, Google uses its cash cow to subsidize its entrance into new markets.

Most damning to me, though, is that when introducing new products, Google seems to be innovating less and copying more. Microsoft has been this way since its founding. Windows copied the Mac, Office copied existing products like Lotus 1-2-3 or WordPerfect, MSN copied AOL, Internet Explorer copied Netscape Navigator, the Xbox copied the PlayStation, the Zune copied the iPod, Bing copied Google, and on and on. I don’t think there has ever been a significant Microsoft product that hasn’t been clearly derivative of an established rival.

Google’s recent products follow a similar trend: Android copies the iPhone, Google Offers copies Groupon, Google Places copies Yelp, Google+ copies Facebook. Now, this Google retailing product looks like a copy of Amazon. There are even whiffs that Google may be using its dominant position in search to unfairly favor its other products.

Google certainly isn’t as bad as Microsoft (nobody is). And it’s certainly true that Google competes in a ton of markets, and shows varying degrees of innovation across them. But when it comes to its recent marquee products, the really big markets where it wants to gain traction, more often than not they’re just copying the innovations of others.