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Google-Microsoft Search Copying Charges: Are We Done Here?

Posted February 7th, 2011 by Andrew Goodman

Last week, in the middle of the hysteria over Microsoft being caught Google-aping by a clever Google “honeypot” sting scheme, I was wondering if I should write a post about whether Microsoft would “wriggle out of” this one.

As the dust settles, though, the controversy seems like it was over a relatively minor issue. And that leaves us with a quizzical feeling about the whole thing.

Above all, the strange thing about it was the decision (and insiders will likely tell you, “decision” may be a bad word for ill-considered communications episodes like this one) to make this into a public calling-out, mediated by the familiar members of Google’s public face and related trade journalists. “Running down the hall to tattle on Microsoft,” indeed.

If it’s a violation of anything but some arcane spirit of good technology innovation, then the appropriate route is to go hard after the perpetrator in court. Why not do that?

As for that spirit of good technology innovation, and trying to prove a point: proving that Microsoft is good at aping (mostly legally, sometimes illegally) other technologies would be proving a point no one would be likely to miss. Indeed, not a few of us have more or less internalized a form of acceptance of some of Microsoft’s greater contributions to our working lives. Offices and professionals have run in a consistent environment backed by Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc. — none ideas particularly original to Microsoft.

Does Google copy things? Sure. Not search results, exactly. Google, though, is highly skilled at basic mimesis. I’ve always held that type of accurate copying to be some kind of signal of intelligence. All great composers started first by playing others’ music, over and over again.

Does Google sometimes do that copying in a way that seems overly aggressive to those who seek to defend their means of earning a living? No question.

Even critical journalists are prone to buy too far into Google’s history as one of relative fair play. For example, they might word a bit about the Overture patent lawsuit as “Google having even been accused of…” without remembering to mention Google tacitly admitted violating Overture’s patent with a whopping $300 million payout to Yahoo (in stock which would today be worth close to $1 billion). The patent system is stupid, but anyway, point made.

Google owns YouTube, which has made huge strides, but it’s worth pointing out the company has historically shown spotty respect for copyright content.

Does Google copy things? Do they study competing businesses with the intention of copying them? Well, of course. Lots. I wouldn’t expect otherwise. Ideas in general come from somewhere.

Along with build, iterate, and iterate some more based on customer feedback, there is also “hang back, look at what third party companies’ features are most compelling and urgent in the marketplace, then build those.” We’ve certainly seen that in some areas of AdWords, for example.

One entrepreneur I know runs a marketplace for a certain type of professional services, making money on listings from sellers. He told me that for a time, his site was inundated with visits from Mountain View. And a short time later, much of his approach and interface was copied when Google launched something similar.

The problem is, the little guy gets copied, and he just has to hope to survive. If he calls out the copycat in public, he gets crushed. And since there is really no solid legal case, all he would have been doing would be railing on about the “spirit of technological innovation,” anyway.

Google has a little bit of an issue with Microsoft encroaching in one area of its business, while Google sets out to put Microsoft out of business in several other areas? Google tries to take the skirmish public in order to win public support and maybe convince more potential hires to join the cooler of the two companies?

Pardon us for not whipping out the hankie.

Big guys should act “bigger” than this. Google hasn’t been bullied in the schoolyard by a larger, meaner foe. So what was the point of coming crying to us?

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