Following, not leadingA company with pockets as deep as Google's can shrug off a few such missteps, but not forever. After a while, it's only natural to forsake novelty and take your inspiration from your competitors -- even for a company that prides itself on its engineering culture, as Google does.
Take Google+, for example. It's Google's most buzzed-about launch in recent memory, but it's hardly the company's first foray into social networking. (It's the fourth, if you count Buzz, Wave, and Orkut.) It is, however, the first time Google has unabashedly aped its top rival. The Google+ Stream layout is a virtual clone of Facebook's News Feed -- ditto for its profile pages. Squint your eyes and the Google+ favicon even looks like Facebook's "F."
That's quite a turnabout for Google, which earlier this year accused Microsoft of copying its search results. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, the risk is that users may not find Google's offering sufficiently different enough to switch. So far there has been no mass migration from Facebook; although Google+ gained 20 million users in its first three weeks, its momentum already appears to be slowing.
In its quest for growth, Google may also tend to redouble its emphasis on existing offerings, such as Gmail, YouTube, and especially search. Of the $28.1 billion Google earned from advertising in 2010, two-thirds came from Google's own sites, rather than its ad networks. The risk there is that too much emphasis on its core products could put Google on the same road as Microsoft: For all its recent attempts to innovate in new markets, the Redmond-based giant has never managed to shake its reliance on Windows and Office, which still account for more than half its revenue.
Some critics already see evidence of calcification at the Googleplex. Former Google engineer Dhanji Prasanna describes the company's much-hyped software infrastructure as "10 years old, aging and designed for building search engines and crawlers"; for other purposes, he says, it is "well and truly obsolete." Similarly, Prasanna says the house-built tools that power Google's products are "ancient, creaking dinosaurs" that make prototyping new products excessively difficult.