Why today’s tech giants are locked in a copycat arms race

The biggest tech companies are fighting for market share across dozens of fronts—which is why they’re churning out lookalike products

Google CEO Sundar Pichai giving the keynote address at the 2016 Google I/O developers’ conference

Google CEO Sundar Pichai giving the keynote address at the 2016 Google I/O developers’ conference. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Google kicked off its annual I/O conference on Wednesday with a slate of new product announcements. Some of them sound exciting, but if you came away from the whole thing feeling like you’ve seen much of it before, you’re not alone.

Among the announcements was Google Allo, which isn’t actually a topical cream for sunburns, but rather a new chat app, complete with automated bots that can have conversations. There was also Duo, a mobile app that lets users have video chats.

Then there was Home, a cylindrical speaker that can sit on your coffee table and listen to your spoken instructions. Rounding it all out was Daydream, Google’s new virtual reality platform.

Eagle-eyed tech watchers will recognize these efforts as Google versions of Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, Apple’s FaceTime, Amazon’s Echo and HTC or Oculus’s VR stores, respectively.

It’s worth mentioning that this all follows shortly after the news that Google is also testing its own ride-sharing service through its Waze app, a la Uber.

This duplication of online services—some would call it copying— is part of a larger trend where technology companies are purposely blurring the lines between one another. It’s getting to the point where if you squint, it’s getting hard to tell them apart.

There was a time when all Google did was search engines, and all Facebook did was status updates and photo sharing. Amazon sold books, Apple sold computers and even Uber only peddled rides.

But the tech giants are increasingly encroaching on each other’s turf with duplicative services, leading to a sort of department-store-ification of the internet where single-purpose specialty companies are becoming a rarity.

The main reason for this move towards generic-ism is technological—it’s relatively easy nowadays for one company to duplicate another’s services, especially when that company is sitting on piles of money.

Internet company X, for example, comes up with a hot service that people love, so internet company Y either quickly makes its own version or acquires internet company Z that also happens to play in that space. And vice versa, ad nauseum.

Driving this is a deep-seated fear among the tech giants that they are just a hair’s breadth away from their zillions of users deserting them for the hot, new thing. Let’s call it the MySpace Phenomenon. They must therefore offer everything under the sun, at least in functional form, and jump on every new trend lest they miss out.

This is good in a way, because the competitiveness drives innovation. Google Maps, for example, might start to stagnate if it didn’t have Apple Maps nipping at its heels. But it’s also bad in that it creates lock-in, the same way that telecom companies make it tough for customers to leave by hooking them into a suite of services that include wireless, TV and internet.

It’s also too bad for those us who liked the internet when it was full of single-service players, because those focused companies did their jobs very well. Being forced to do many, many things inevitably results in at least some of those efforts being less than half-assed. Apple Maps or Google+, anyone?

Is this a trend that will continue into the future? It sure looks like it, unless one of the tech giants goes rogue and decides to focus on doing just one thing very well. I’ve written before about how Netflix is one of the few still doing that, but the mounting pressures the streaming company is facing from all corners don’t bode well for this continued focus.

Welcome to the internet in 2016, a shopping mall where the giant department stores have crowded out nearly all the mom-and-pop shops.