Everyone Borrows, Google Flaunts It

In “Everything is a Remix” Kirby Ferguson makes a compelling and fascinating case that innovation and creativity lean heavily on prior art. That’s always been the case in technology, especially software, but I can’t recall a single company going so far in “borrowing” from product after product as Google has done recently.

I can, however, recall various groups that unabashedly borrow from other software products. Gimp, Open Office, and many other open source projects don’t just lean heavily on the work of Adobe, Microsoft, and others, they directly copy key features, often while adding little or no additional value. Because most such projects have yet to successfully disrupt the status quo and do actually contribute to the “greater good” in various ways, the tech community has excused and at times even celebrated the borrowing.

Google’s use of “open” as a marketing term often seems to be a naive misappropriation of the concept, but more and more I think it’s a brilliant misdirection. Though many, if not all, software products borrow from existing ideas, we’re more likely to give Google a pass on excessive borrowing because of their perceived openness. In thinking about this post, I had to google whether or not Google Docs is open source. Even though it’s not, it has the feel of open source software since it can be used for free or on the cheap and is an attempt to disrupt the stranglehold of Microsoft Office.

Google has innovated in real-time collaboration and other areas, but the core concepts and even most of the features borrow heavily from Microsoft Office and other similar productivity suites. Shame on Goog… oh, wait… Apple did the same thing with iWork. And Microsoft is the one looking over Google’s shoulder in building Office 365. Everyone borrows.

Productivity suites are an easy target since many of the foundational concepts have been around for decades now, but I think it hints at a greater point—the borrowing of software features and other implementation concepts is so easy and so prevalent it’s almost impossible to prevent or even stop. Apple, Microsoft, and other’s are trying, but enforcing software patents in court is a costly fight that can drag on for years.

Meanwhile Google is flaunting its ability to monetize through advertising by unabashedly borrowing from and commoditizing the world’s most used software. People spend a lot of time reading and replying to email—enter Gmail. People spend a lot of time working on documents, spreadsheets, and presentations—enter Google Docs. People spend lots of time in a browser—enter Chrome. People are spending more and more time on mobile devices—enter Android. People are spending an inordinate amount of time on social networks—enter Google+.

In most of its products Google innovates enough that we view any similarities to prior art as borrowing, but Google+ is the most flagrant product ripoff I’ve seen from such a large corporation (Android being a close second). The similarities between Google+ and Facebook were obvious when Google+ first launched. The UI is cleaner in various ways, and Google has innovated a bit with Circles, Huddles, and other features, but fundamentally Google+ is an unabashed ripoff of Facebook. And if you’re not convinced of that, take a look at the Google+ iOS app that just launched today:

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