Whispers of another new Google project in the works are raising eyebrows in Silicon Valley. On Wednesday, veteran tech Robert Scoble announced--on Google+ of all places--that the search giant was trying to get into the increasingly crowded mobile magazine business. "Google is working on a Flipboard competitor for both Android and iPad," he wrote. "My source says that the versions he's seen so far are mind-blowing good." Kara Swisher at AllThingsD followed up with more information. "Google is indeed working on rolling out the new product, which is currently called Propeller," she wrote. "Sources said Propeller is apparently one of a number of new socially focused announcements Google is prepping, including new apps." But here's the kicker:
[Flipboard's] traction among elite users, its high-level design ethos and strong reviews is why Google tried to buy the well-funded company last year, sources said. But Flipboard, which is backed by some of tech's biggest venture players who have invested more than $60 million at a $200 million valuation, declined the kind offer.
At the time, sources said, Google told Flipboard execs that if it did not buy the start-up, it planned to do a version of its own.
At face value, the idea that Google is trying to compete with scrappy (albeit well-funded) startups is irking some people. "This is (at least) the fourth time in the two years or so that Google has taken this approach," notes Jay Yarow at Business Insider, citing similar strategy moves with attempts to buy Groupon, Path and Yelp. However, copying smaller companies products has long been the modus operandi for some major players in Silicon Valley. As Steve Jobs famously said of the Macintosh in a 1994 interview, "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." Facebook is also attracting some attention for making a habit of copying others' ideas with their latest product launches. But Apple and Facebook, however, are also not facing a growing number of antitrust investigations. Google is.
In the European Union, where Google is the target of nine separate antitrust complains, regulators say that the lawsuits have less to do with Google's market domination and more to do with how they're behaving. "Google is the browser of choice for very many of us; but dominance is not the same as abuse of dominance," said EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia this week, speaking specifically about Google's search business. "Abuse is a conduct that protects or extends dominance by illegitimate means, and we still have to conclude whether this is the case for Google."
A Google-branded Flipboard copycat is not necessarily a search product, but all of Google's products are built on top of search. Google has similarly drawn criticism for directing people to their products first in search results, and recent acquisition moves involving Zagat and Motorola Mobility add to growing anxiety that Google is getting too big for comfort. We'll have to wait and see how regulators decide to outline Google's market dominance, but the common theme of the complaints made against the company references crushing competitors. Rumors of yet another competition crusher are just rumors for now, but they certainly don't make Google look less evil.