Mike Isaac

Recent Posts by Mike Isaac

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

It 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.

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.

How 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.

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik