In Google's "glass house," a battle with Bing looms

Commentary: Copy or theft? How Google set themselves up to get Bing’d.

Okay, so now Google and Microsoft officially hate each other, with Google complaining about Bing stealing their ideas, and Microsoft chiming back, “grow a pair.”

All of this is, of course, very funny because isn’t Google’s whole business model about imitating, co-opting and commoditizing?

Talk amongst yourselves, and tell me if you agree.

It started with the search index, when Google slurped up the web in a way that they could sell advertising around it.

Greater good, I suppose, but I’m relatively sure those in the media industry would agree that Google has done more to hurt their business than to help it. Wouldn’t they?

Note to the media industry: Don’t all go rushing out to make an iTunes-like deal with Google so they can find a way to give away for free what you still sell for cash money today.

Most recently, Google’s attention has shifted to the mobile domain, where they’ve tried (with success) to embrace, co-opt and give away the mobile user experience and software platform play innovated by one-time best friend, Apple.

Android and Apple

Ever-virtuous, they even shined a much-needed spotlight on Apple’s insidiously closed nature (although very few iOS developers or iOS device users have noticed).

Knowing that open always prevails, Google has led a revolution in mobile that empowers carriers — yes, carriers — to once again ratchet control away from consumers by building locked-down devices replete with crapware, because as Android head, Andy Rubin, would have us believe, “That’s the nature of open.”

Haven’t we seen this picture before?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Microsoft is “innocent,” if we can even agree that such a term means anything in the tech domain anymore.

After all, from time immemorial, or at least since Microsoft first copied and pasted the Mac “look and feel” into Windows and got away with it, the game has come down to one of two things: Either be a great innovator, and build a differentiated market position. Or, failing that, be a fast follower.

This is something that Google should be able to understand, viewing almost every online service these days as one that they can improve upon, all too often by creating a disappointing imitation.

Now, I am not complaining. I like a decent chunk of what Google does. And it’s free, so I should be thankful, I think.

Pot, meet kettle

That said, Google should remember that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Why quibble over degrees of theft?

Or, degrees of openness, for that matter. I suppose an irony of the Google-Bing saga is that if Google was truly as open as it claims to be, these proprietary algorithms would be open, right?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Google should tip their hat to Microsoft for playing the same hand on Google, and focus instead on kicking Microsoft’s butt on the competitive playing field.

That’s what Apple has to do, right?

If, on the other hand, it’s theft, and a moral wrong, then Google should quit copying everyone, stop trying to commoditize everyone else’s hard-fought-for business models, and focus on innovating wholly new ideas.

Either way, they are between a rock and a hard place in this matter. Glass houses are like that.

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  • http://colinscroggins.com Colin Scroggins

    I am disappointed at the number of people unwilling to call a spade, a spade because of other philosophical differences with Google. What Microsoft is doing is tantamount to looking over someone’s shoulder during a test and using another’s answers as the basis for their own. This is something that should be denigrated, not downplayed.

  • Tony Montana

    … very surprised to find such an article on radar.oreilly.com.

    Mister, there is a huge diference between stealing ideas and stealing intelectual property. The latter was what Microsoft did: they have stolen results produced by Google.

  • Michael

    I don’t see how you get from copying to “commoditiz[ing] everyone else’s hard-fought-for-business models.” There not the same. Microsoft isn’t bringing any value to the consumer by feeding us Google’s results. Google’s commoditization of certain business models provided value in the past.

  • http://azzlsoft.com Rich

    Google is understandably miffed. Microsoft has taken something far more valuable than search results. They have captured user intent, something that was fairly exclusive to Google until recently.

    Yes, the ranking algorithms are important, but more important are the billions of clicks that Google follows to the right destination. They do this from Google sites, from aquisitions like Double Click, from Chrome, and Google Toolbar.

    What sucks for Google is that Microsoft has a monopoly of it’s own and it started leveraging that to gather it’s own usage data, perhaps on a similar scale to Google.

    I don’t believe that Google is incompetent enough to actually believe that Bing is copying them. They are misleading the public with contrived results using very unscientific methods and they know it.

    Despite the nerd uproar, I don’t see this ending poorly for Bing in the long run. Most people won’t hear about it or won’t care. The few that are capable of understanding what is actually happening will mostly side with Bing.

    What really baffles me is that Google has so much more to lose than to gain with this gambit. The user base is so asymmetric that the potential gains are so much smaller than the potential losses.

    Silly.

  • http://directmatchmedia.com/google-proves-bing.php Matthias

    Google specifically gamed the Bing search results by using the Bing toolbar to attempt to swing the Bing algorithm. (see http://directmatchmedia.com/google-proves-bing.php) This is no different than spammers using known methods for gaming Google’s search results (an act that can get you in big trouble with Google).

    Google accuses Bing of impropriety, but Google follows users too, sees what they’re doing, what they’re clicking on. Google probably knows you came here, that you’re looking at this article. They’re watching to see how long you’re here to see if this is something you were interested in. Bing does the same thing to every site when the toolbar is in place… every site including Google.

  • Anonymous

    I am also outraged at this blatant BS being propagated on reputable sites. If Microsoft created technology similar to google’s (which they did by creating bing), there’s no harm done. If Microsoft copies google’s result, even when wrong, and gives it to users as theirs, that is a very grave crime and worthy of the shame being brought on them. For reputable organizations to try to cover this up and show support for Microsoft is sacrilegous.

    Get your facts right. Microsoft should be ashamed of what they did. Plain and simple.

  • http://blog.monstuff.com Julien Couvreur

    Thanks for injecting some sanity into the debate.
    Competition is about emulation and innovation (hand in hand).

    The definition of “innocence” is a good question, and I would separate legal innocence from more subjective judgements. Cheating on your wife, or lying to a friend may both be distasteful separately from the question of their legality.

    Further, I think that intellectual property laws are illegitimate and arbitrary, so even if Bing did literally copy Google (which apparently is not the case here), that should not be illegal. Instead, it would be a matter of social norms (not laws), and be frowned upon, or found distasteful.

  • Marco

    This is silly. Google tracks users on their own site. If Walmart started snooping in on target’s day-to-day operations then people would call this corporate espionage. This is akin to cheating, plain and simple.

    “Click-spam” paleeease. Click spam is when you send malicious data to a server, they clicked on their OWN site! If anything they click-spammed themselves!

    Also, saying android is a copy of iPhone is a clear example of your incompetence. Do you really think Google managed to make Android in 6 months? Did they try buying the Light Spectrum, make Google 411 and build chrome to push HTML5 by accident? I think they were just doing the obvious thing, just like Apple.

    Now, if you say they are copying the iPad.. that’s a different story. But, that’s hardly the same. It’s not like Google is complaining that Microsoft made a search engine! They are complaining that Microsoft stole their results. It’s like Microsoft taking Android, re-branding it and releasing it as if they made it.

  • hysonmb

    There are many people saying many things about what each of these companies are doing.

    This is what the companies themselves are saying. Essentailly it’s about how data is collected. Bing isn’t crawling Google, it’s ranking results fed to them.

    http://bigthink.com/ideas/26593

    There’s another post that goes deeper into the fact that only a small percentage of the 100 “honeypot” terms came back with the high rankings MS is accused of. If they were stealing Google results, that should have been 100%.

    Google has been showing a bit a of crybaby side recently. They win a big contract with Google Docs and they’re touting it all over the web. Microsoft wins a contract with Office Live and Google goes to court saying they were not properly considered. I’m a fan of both companies, I think they each do great things- but this is just PR bickering.

  • Tony Montana

    Are you being paid by Microsoft to make propaganda?

    Does the word bribery mean something to you?

  • Rick

    Google’s entire business is founded on ripping off everyone’s content. Search engines are by nature leeches. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/search_engines.html

  • Fair

    Google, How do you call this ?
    Making money off of others hard work at You Tube by showing ads ? Oh yea, you will take it off if the content owner writes to you!!! oh sure,… you are a big brother you can display my contents without MY permission and I will have to come to you to complain about MY content.

    Same goes for Google books (sure your books:)… you copy millions of books without authors/publishers permission and ME COME TO U TO TAKE IT OFF FROM YOUR BIG BROTHER SItE!!!@

  • GY

    People out there who don’t know how Google makes money are IGNORANT or IRRATIONAL”

    Does’nt have a clue about online business… Google gets angry if “its” contents area “copied” although it is their CORE business… Get it ? Take Youtube or Google books or those million blue links. Are you kidding…. THINK.

  • http://www.thenetworkgarden.com Mark Sigal

    @Colin, I think that there are two variables here. One is that the line between innovate on your own, embrace/extend the ideas of others, and completely copy/steal is a fuzzy one in tech.

    Was it stealing when Google took AdMob data to discern from user/usage analytics what mobile behaviors promulgate on iPhone so they could improve Android? Was it stealing when they copied Overture’s business model to create AdWords? You can make reasoned rationale arguments on either side as to what “the line” is between imitation and theft.

    This brings me to the second point, Google has long held themselves up (quite sanctimoniously) as the company of open, the do no evil company. As such, there’s a growing sense that when you live buy the sword, you die by it as well. You can’t attack others with these precepts in the morning and bemoan getting attacked by them in the afternoon.

    @Tony Montana, it’s great to see that you didn’t actually die in the last scene of Scarface, although the dry cleaning bill, must be a killer. Jokes aside, all that I would say to your point is that there are plenty of Google apologists who think that they (or Google) are the final arbiter of the imitate, borrow or steal line, and there is no convincing them that their brand of thievery is spiritually linked to what Microsoft has done here. As to the personal dissage re Microsoft and bribery, I have written plenty on my disdain for what Microsoft has become creatively speaking, and for their scorched earth tactics in days of yore, but I suspect you will sleep better at night assuming conspiracy theories.

    @Michael, when you say that Microsoft isn’t bringing any value, I disagree. They are building a better search engine, and their relative growth into a player in the space validates that fact. It’s no different than me trying to argue that Google Android brings no value by copying Apple’s iOS. They do, as the market data shows.

    @Rich, it’s funny in that Google tracks every piece of data under the sun. They are unhappy here because the gains are asymmetrical as you note. Bing is gaining more than Google from the data suckage practice at the present so in the great Google algorithm in the cloud the binary shifts from fair to evil. Alas

  • anil

    Very disappointed with oreilly. Looks like they are turning out to be anti-google fanboys. Imitation is different from copying.

    1. You start a restaurant, next door guy comes and start one too, following you in look and feel and marketing. Thats imitation.
    2. You start a restaurant, next door guy comes and keeps hidden cameras all over u r restaurant and copies all the recipes. Thats COPYING.

    Know the difference between imitating and copying you f**cking moron

  • Tony Montana

    Mark Sigal wrote: >

    Why conspiracy theories? There is enough evidence that Microsoft actually bribe blogers. Ok, I am not sure about whether they bribed you, but I wouldn’t be surprised…

    Come on, look at Steve Balmer… :-)

  • http://colinscroggins.com Colin Scroggins

    @Mark, The difference in stealing and a derivative work is that in the latter, the end product typically looks markedly different and is improved/improvised on in some significant way. In Microsoft’s case, the end search result is looking shockingly like the data it is being derived from. This lack of differentiation is what makes this ethically questionable.

  • http://bit.ly/kshpress Deon

    Well done Mark!

    You nailed Google’s hypocritical stance, put the Google vs. Bing nonsense in insightful context, and tossed in some humor while you were at it.

    A simple reminder: If Google provides you with a “free” service, since Google is not a Non-profit enterprise, someone has to pay the bill – not Google. In other words, if you use Gmail or Android “free”, you are not Google’s customer, the entity paying Google for analytics and targeted ads is.

    Google is committed to adding value for their customers to make profit, whether or not the activities are in your best interest.

    Viewed this way, “evil” activities like grabbing private data from your WiFi network, or mashing your private email contact list in Gmail with Buzz, so all of a sudden anyone you emailed knows your whereabouts, begins to make sense. Google needs scale and tons of data on your habits and travels.

    Cheers!

  • Tony Montana

    @Colin Scroggins

    Very good point Colin.

    Mark knows that well. But it doesn’t make sense because he is a sold soul…

    He is doing propanada for Microsoft, for money. I dont know how much he is getting, but surely enough. I saw him in other popular tech blogs making points for microsoft…

    Mark wake up!!! S— on that money. Microsoft IS evil, they are going to eat your soul….. Hehe

  • http://www.thenetworkgarden.com Mark Sigal

    @Julien, I love your point regarding social norms. It is unclear to me what the consensus is here, but it’s (to me) hardly a case of evil, and more a case of where do you draw the line. How much reverse-engineering is okay in an industry where the term “fast follower” implies learn, emulate and leapfog?

    @Marco, I think that the history is fairly clear that Android was prototyped to be a device in the Blackberry fork of mobile devices, and once iPhone burst onto the scene, Android was effectively rebooted to be a touch-centric device, heavily inspired by the iPhone form factor.

    Now, this gets into social mores, but if I was an advisor to your company (i.e., Eric Schmidt on Apple board), and you shared lots of nitty-gritty on your business strategy, innovations and what not, and found out later that my side project that was markedly different from one of your major initiatives, was suddenly my major initiative, and clearly and directly inspired by yours, would you feel violated or consider it fair game? My point is that I don’t think that Google or Microsoft did anything illegal or immoral but it’s fair game to question their values.

    @Deon, thanks for the added data points.

    @Tony, the shocking thing is that as soon as I wrote this piece, Ballmer instructed his minions to set me up with a lifetime supply of Microsoft Bob. Hallelujah.

  • Michael

    Mark wrote:

    “It’s no different than me trying to argue that Google Android brings no value by copying Apple’s iOS.”

    Mark, you continue to use false analogy examples. Google couldn’t iOS in the way the Google claims Bing has copied Google Search. The acted as a true competitor. They built an OS from scratch to try to compete. That’s what I would like to see Bing do. Calling Android a copy of iOS is like calling Blekko a copy of Google.

  • Canuck

    I usually enjoy reading O’Reilly posts and commentary, whether I agree or disagree with them. This one was an exception, and left me feeling vaguely queasy — I doubt it even passes the basic tests of journalistic integrity, much less good writing.

    Microsoft was caught red-handed deliberately passing Google search results off as their own, while denying publicly that they were doing it –saying “well, there’s things we don’t like about Google, too” doesn’t change that and make it an everyone’s-sort-of-to-blame case.

  • http://www.thenetworkgarden.com Mark Sigal

    @Canuck, that is great and valid push-back (knocking my journalistic integrity aside), but let me ask you this? Why do you think that there is so much eye-rolling toward’s Google’s response in tech circles?

    I am hardly the first one to bring up this point, and it’s not a simple case of non-technical people not getting it.

    In my case, I have been in tech since ’94 building everything from embedded systems to network hardware to consumer services and now mobile, so I understand the technical nuances here.

    Plus, there is no love lost for Microsoft, right? I cover this point in the second section of the piece. Most consider MS to not be an innovator and to be a serial copier, but I’d say it’s 50-50 those defending Google v. those (like me) saying, Google is quibbling over degrees not universally held truths.

    Why do you think this is not a black and white issue for many in tech, as you see it to be?

  • Canuck

    You make a fair comment on my journalistic-integrity dig — it was unfair and ad-hominem. Sticking to the discussion, though, I think the posting was off base, not because Google is good and Microsoft is bad, but because you’re comparing apples to oranges.

    It’s entirely fair game for Microsoft to copy features of the older Netscape browser iton IE or features of Google Search into Bing, or for Google to copy features of the older iPhone in Android (and Apple to have copied features of the Blackberry into iPhone before that), or for Sun/Oracle to copy features of MS Word in OpenOffice. That’s how innovation works: it has a lot more to do with implementation than inspiration.

    On the other hand, if Google were to take a copy of MS Word, change the text and graphics, and try to pass it off as “Google Writer”, that’s not imitation (good or bad) — it’s plagiarism. That’s what Bing did: Microsoft didn’t just imitate how Google Search works, or even simply index the same sites, but they actually took live Google search results and rebranded them as Bing results. Google caught them red-handed with a simple but indisputable honey trap.

    It doesn’t matter how relatively popular or unpopular Google and Microsoft are among tech people — I’m not an MS fan, but I promise you I’d be accusing Google just as loudly if things had been the other way around.

    I think it’s important not to try to muddy the waters in a case like this by deliberately conflating imitation (whether you approve or disapprove) with what Microsoft did here, or to say that Microsoft’s unethical behaviour in any way belongs in the same league as Google allowing phone vendors to add crud to Android. Microsoft crossed a non-fuzzy ethical line, and the only way out of the hole they’re in is to figure out who was responsible, fire them loudly and publicly (even up to the VP level), issue a groveling apology, and then try to find a more positive way forward as a company.

  • http://www.thenetworkgarden.com Mark Sigal

    @Canuck, very well reasoned and crisply articulated. I can’t specifically disagree with any of your points, and wouldn’t try to, as your perspective is certainly valid. Thanks for the thoughtful write-up.

  • Mike

    I’m adding the author of this article to my list of authors I’ll never read again. I’m very surprised to find an article of this poor quality on radar.oreilly.com as well.

    I’m the first to call Google out when I disagree with their actions, but in this case they are in the right. Microsoft is not only stealing from them, but stealing from customers as well, without giving them proper notice. My Google search history shouldn’t be sent to Microsoft under any circumstances, yet alone without proper notification.

    This article is so full of vile, innuendo, and untruths that I don’t have the time to address all of it.

  • http://stateless.geek.nz Nicholas Lee

    “All of this is, of course, very funny because isn’t Google’s whole business model about imitating, co-opting and commoditizing?”

    You article seems some what snide.

    In their core business Google adds value to the search chain, because of this they have a right to use their business model to generate income.

    What Microsoft seems to be doing is the equivalent staring over someone’s shoulder at an exam or staring into your shop front and “using” your new popular season designs.

    Google has made an investment in search results via software and hardware infrastructure and their IP. Co-opting this is a form of theft not innovation.

  • http://essaytips.org Ajeet

    I think that the data that Bing used to display results was not proprietary to Google. It may have been in bad taste, but it is not illegal, I think. Otherwise, Google would have certainly initiated legal action!

  • dbslims

    lol. What do you mean, free and open can work against you??!

    No, say its not true!

    The vision of a near costless exchange of ideas brought to you by the new economics of free is a compelling wave, but in the end it is a pipe dream. -gratefully.

    Some call it the reality of natural law. Others, simply: economics.

    Enjoy.