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.
A tangled legal Web
Technology aside, Google's ability to innovate is also constrained by legal concerns. Tech companies are increasingly using the courts as a means to gain competitive advantage, particularly in the more hotly contested markets. As a result, Google and its partners must answer to multiple ongoing lawsuits over patents and other intellectual property.
Google's Android smartphone OS has become a particular snake pit of litigation. Most prominently, Oracle claims Android's Dalvik virtual machine violates several key Java patents and is seeking billions in damages. Meanwhile, Gemalto is suing Google and its partners HTC, Motorola, and Samsung over patents related to its Java Card technology. NTP alleges Google has violated its wireless email delivery patents. Microsoft has signed patent licensing agreements with at least five Android device makers, while Apple is seeking an injunction banning HTC from importing its handsets.
It seems anyone involved with building Android devices can expect to find themselves in court sooner or later, and the patent-licensing toll may soon rise high enough that it negates any cost advantage of the otherwise "free" OS. Google's recent purchase of 1,000 patents from IBM may slow the tide, but won't stem it.