Mike Isaac

Recent Posts by Mike Isaac

Attention Start-Ups: Just Because Facebook Clones Your App, It Doesn’t Mean You’re Dead

pokeIt must be frightening to be a successful Web start-up, knowing that at any moment another giant tech company could come along and clone your idea. It happens all the time.

Indeed, when I wrote that Facebook was to introduce its own version of a Snapchat app last week — a mobile messaging application that allows users to send self-destructing text, photo and video messages to one another — many began writing their Snapchat eulogies.

Not so fast. While Facebook’s new Poke app shot up to No. 1 in the App Store for its first few days on the market, it has settled back down to spot No. 39, according to the latest numbers on Apple’s App Store leader board.

Part of this has a simple explanation. For the first few days after Facebook released Poke, the company inserted links to the App Store into users’ news feeds, prompting them to download the new app. That sort of distribution power is rivaled by few, as the news feed is literally front and center for every single one of Facebook’s billion-plus users. That, combined with the release day press blitz, pushed the app to the top of the charts.

But now Facebook seems to have taken that placement out of the feed. That’ll obviously sink the download rates for the new app. And it has only been out for a few days, so it’s not necessarily a measure of the app’s long-term growth.

snapchat_vs_poke_ranking

Still, it says something that while Poke rests at No. 39, Snapchat currently sits in fourth place on Apple’s Top Free Apps list. It has the benefit of having been the go-to app for ephemeral messaging for months, not to mention the word-of-mouth power that Poke can’t attain in just a few days.

The larger issue here isn’t just about Snapchat vs. Facebook. It’s about cloning services in general. We’ve seen Facebook copy apps and other start-ups many times before; the Questions feature aped Quora’s style, while Deals was supposed to be a Groupon killer. Same with Google, whose Currents brought out forecasts of the demise of Flipboard, while Google+ made many tell Facebook to be wary.

snapchatHow did all those turn out? Well, Facebook killed Questions a few weeks ago, and all the other clone products haven’t exactly dominated the competition. (When was the last time you used Currents? Ever?)

The lesson: A giant competitor playing in your space does not mean you’re dead in the water. If you’ve got a year-long head start, a loyal user base and a firm grasp on the technology you’ve built, it may not make a difference if Facebook or Google rips your app off (and in the case of Poke, it’s a straight feature-for-feature rip).

Obviously this Snapchat vs. Poke thing will take time to play out. Just remember, even for a behemoth like Facebook, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald