Déjà Google

Why does the search company keep duplicating its own efforts?

For a firm with world-changing ambitions, Google is remarkably insistent about its area of expertise. “It’s best to do one thing really, really well,” the company’s mission statement declares. “We do search. With one of the world’s largest research groups focused exclusively on solving search problems, we know what we do well, and how we could do it better.”

Who is Google kidding? Sure, the company is really, really good at search. But that’s not the only thing it’s good at, nor is it the only thing it’s trying to be good at. In addition to search, there are at least three other areas in which Google excels—e-mail (Gmail is the best mail program on the planet), Web browsing (Chrome, too, flattens its rivals), and location services (you’ll never get lost with Google’s maps and local listings). It does many other things nearly as well (Android, Google Docs, Calendar), some things not well at all (Knol, anyone?), and a few things that seem sure to be amazing given some more time (Google Books).

For those of us who’ve been watching the company for years, the scope of Google’s efforts isn’t surprising. What’s far more mystifying is how often the company duplicates its own efforts. Hardly a month goes by anymore without an announcement from Google that promises to change everything. More and more, these announcements sound like déjà vu.

Take this week’s new product, Google Buzz, a status-update-sharing service built into Gmail. Buzz is Google’s second recent effort to remake how we communicate. Last year, the company launched Wave, a very novel, very confusing, and at this point nearly useless system that also seeks to revolutionize online information sharing. Buzz also has a bit in common with Google Talk, the company’s instant-messaging platform—both Buzz and Talk allow people to send status updates to their friends. When you update your Buzz status on a mobile phone, it also records your location and broadcasts your position on a map. You know what else does that? Google Latitude, a see-where-your-friends-are service that Google launched a year ago. And Latitude was itself a copy of another Google service, Dodgeball—a friend-mapping site that Google purchased in 2005, neglected for several years, and then shut down last year.

At a press conference to unveil Buzz, Google execs said they’ll likely find ways to integrate some of these overlapping features (it’s already possible to tie your Talk status into your Buzz status). But Buzz isn’t the only place where Google is competing against itself. Not long ago, many in the tech world wondered when Google would build its own operating system. Today, it’s building two—Android and the forthcoming Chrome OS. Google is so fond of social networking that it’s got two places for you to set up an online profile, Orkut and Google Profiles. A few years ago, the company launched Google Bookmarks, a nifty feature that let you save your bookmarks online; if you bookmarked something on one computer, it would be available everywhere else. Google was apparently so pleased with that effort that it added a separate bookmark-syncing service to Chrome. Now, if you bookmark something on Chrome, it will show up in Chrome on your other computers—but it won’t show up in Google Bookmarks, because that’s a different beast entirely.

Why does Google repeat itself so often? The short answer is that it’s got a lot of money, a lot of smart people, and expansive ambitions. It’s also working in an industry that is notoriously unstable. Google is chaotic by design—engineers are encouraged to spend time and money to go beyond their assigned tasks and think up their own projects. This structure has a few obvious advantages over top-down organizations. Everyone at Google is an innovator. The company can tap into a large pool of ideas, and employees are given a sense of ownership over their creations. Some of Google’s best products—Gmail, for example—came about because coders hacked together their own software without their bosses’ prodding.

In theory, this is a smart way to manage a tech company. Google derives nearly all its revenues from a single source—advertising. Though there’s no sign of that business abating, the company would be foolish not to look for other sources of revenue. The tech world changes quickly, usually as a result of disruptive innovations—novel technologies that come from unexpected places. That’s why Google likes to buy so many start-ups: It’s better to pull any halfway-promising technology in-house than have it grow into the next unstoppable rival. And that’s also why Google likes to launch so many new products. So what if Buzz, Wave, Latitude, and Talk all have overlapping features? Google’s theory is that it’s better to throw everything at the public and see what sticks; many of these products could fail, but if one succeeds then all the effort will be justified.

There are some downsides to Google’s gallery of look-alike products, though. For one thing, the repetition confuses customers and business partners. One of Wave’s main problems is that people aren’t using it—a new communication tool needs to hit a certain threshold to be of much use, and Wave, right now, is pretty barren. By adding Buzz to Gmail, Google is only deepening Wave’s problems. Why should anyone use Wave if even Google doesn’t seem sure that it represents the future of online communication?

So, too, with the rivalry between Android and Chrome OS. Android has so far been offered mainly on cell phones, but several computer makers have been impressed enough with the OS to consider offering it on netbook machines, too. But that’s exactly the market that Chrome OS is targeting. So how are PC makers to know which OS Google plans to support for the long run? And what about developers—Chrome and Android use completely different programming models, so apps you build for one system won’t necessarily work on the other. If you’ve got a great new idea for a program, then, should you focus on Android or Chrome? Nobody knows—and so maybe it’d be best just to build something for Apple’s iPhone and iPad instead and wait to see how Google resolves its internal OS rivalry.

This suggests another disadvantage of Google’s spate of me-too products—it wastes resources, forcing employees to compete against their colleagues rather than rival firms. Operating system development is a specialized area of computing; there aren’t too many people in the world who are experts at it. It makes little sense, then, to divide that limited expertise between two products rather than focusing on a single one. If everyone on the Chrome OS and Android teams worked together, they’d be far more likely to create something that could take on Apple. As a wise company once said, it’s best to do one thing really, really well.

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