There was a time when being distinct was essential in the tech industry. Yes, people were still building phones, apps and other things that the tech industry generally does, but innovation was a key characteristic of being a technology giant. Without meaning to imply that there is absolutely no innovation, one look at the smartphone industry will show you how everything looks and feels just the same. Needless to say, this tendency to replicate what is successful is destroying innovation, not only in the device manufacturing industry, but the tech industry in general.
And even where it’s not doing that, it is hilarious and irritating at the same time to see the same feature, same design, same action on every platform and device that you interact with. With that being said, let’s have a look at some of the most obvious and bothersome “me-too”s in tech.
This could possibly be what prompted this article to begin with. Snapchat began in 2011 and the disappearing picture and video format was quite popular, especially because no one else was doing it. Pretty soon, Snapchat was offering additional features on the app. One such feature was Stories, which let you present your disappearing snaps in chronological order to your friends and followers on the platform. Within a year of its introduction, i.e by summer 2014, the number of pictures and videos being shared via Stories had surpassed the earlier person-to-person private snaps.
Although it took them a couple of years and an acquisition by Facebook, Instagram also launched their own version of stories called Instagram Stories. Sounds like they weren’t even trying to be original, right? That’s because they weren’t. “They deserve all the credit”, said Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom to Techcrunch in an interview, when asked about the implied copying.
One look at Instagram stories now, and you can tell where they are headed – geotagging, drawing tools, stickers and more are already there, and you can check out an infographic here to understand that Instagram has actually taken it one step further and introduced additional features like tagging friends, swipe up links, live video and more.
What’s more, Facebook has taken this feature and spread it across its portfolio of apps like WhatsApp, with ’Status’, and Messenger, with its latest Facebook Messenger Day. While they claim to be different, it is hard to spot anything significant that sets them apart, other than a couple of stickers or the platform itself – which might precisely be the reason for user interest to dwindle in the concept of stories altogether! Although to be fair, we might just be looking at the rise of another super-popular format, like when the newsfeed first came out.
One look at the smartphone industry and its products right now will tell you a very blatant tale of ‘inspiration’ generously being borrowed in every production cycle. In fact, it is quite difficult to pinpoint where it all started and who did it first, but many say that it all began when Apple came out with the iPhone.
Perhaps a better testament to the copying would be the number of lawsuits filed by smartphone manufacturers against each other. Usually, it is something people associate Apple with, but if it were only the Cupertino based tech giant involved, there wouldn’t be something called the Smartphone ‘Patent wars’ (it even has its own Wikipedia page). Over the years, Sony, Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Nokia, Motorola, Huawei, LG, ZTE, HTC and other phone manufacturers have been engaged in litigations and counter-litigations based on smartphone patent violations, hence the moniker.
This has affected the customer. An average smartphone buyer, who used to look for a unique smartphone back in the day, will now look for the same features in all phones, as a guarantee towards a safe purchase. Nowadays, almost all smartphones sport a slate/phablet design with little or no difference in the way we use them. Is it because we have reached an optimal design? Or is it just a ‘make what sells’ phenomenon?
If we were to make a list of things that video games copied from each other, it would be one really long list. Some would say that copying and borrowing inspiration is how genres are formed. While that is true, when one game looks and plays almost exactly like the other, one can’t help but wonder if it is a case of outright copying.
In recent examples, the case of Overwatch vs Paladins comes to mind. Note that Overwatch was a hugely successful game and knock-offs and rip-offs aren’t uncommon for games that see that level of success. But when the accused is a reputable studio like Hi-Rez Studios, you are bound to get up and take notice. The accusations have actually been flying to and fro, but with the marketing might of Blizzard you can take a guess at whose version more people have heard about. To get a comprehensive list of the information and quotes available as a comparison, take a look at this Reddit post.
If these debate reminds you of another similar one from a couple of years ago, you’re not wrong. Going back just a few years, the DotA vs LoL debate was rife with accusations from both sides. While fans of the original DotA were busy accusing LoL of copying, LoL fans couldn’t get enough of blaming DotA 2 for the copying. Of course, one can say that nobody really lost, since both games are insanely popular and are doing quite well. The debate’s attention is now focused on the former example in this section. We wonder what will be next?
The wearables market has been a cause of debate for quite a while now. People have given judgements on both side of the fence, calling it the future as well as a failure. But what’s neglected is the similarity between most wearables, especially fitness trackers.
Don’t get us wrong, there’s not much fitness trackers are supposed to do to begin with. But it does get tiring watching every manufacturer tout their product as the next big revolution in the fitness tracking market. What they bring out however, is a product with the exact same feature set and sometimes almost the same design as the rest, with the hopes that people will go after it based on brand value.
If there was innovation, at least in design, when it comes to fitness trackers, we would be looking at major brands diversifying their design from the standard bracelet type structure popularised by Fitbit to more diverse designs meant for different user groups. While all of us might be trying to do the same thing with fitness trackers, not all of us are the same to begin with. For instance, answer one question. If you think that this section was unwarranted – why isn’t there a manual option to stop tracking on most fitness trackers when, say, you’re on a vehicle? or other features that differentiate the products?
Okay, before you start ranting about successful business models and all that, we DO know that the startup industry often works on taking an idea and bettering it. But more often than not, what actually happens is the taking of an idea and the slathering of more VC funds on it to attract more customers via offers.
Take a look at the food ordering segment in India – Foodpanda, TinyOwl, Zomato and Swiggy. While not all of them are failing, it is clear that Swiggy is leading the roost. The funding into food startups had risen to a cool $74 million in the first half of 2015 only to drop to a disappointing $19 million in the second half. Offering discounts and cashbacks proved to be suicidal for most of the startups in this area, with TinyOwl shutting shop just last year. Among all of this, Swiggy has managed to raise another investment of $5 million recently. Why? Because it became the differentiator.
Instead of focussing on cashbacks and discounts like every other food delivery startup, Swiggy’s focus was on delivering within shorter times (Average delivery time on the app is 37 minutes) and to ensure traceability. This focus on service quality, instead of copying the discount business model is what made sure Swiggy survived the crunch. Similar stories are littered across the Indian startup scenario, where investors are backing out of companies that are losing money consistently due to too many discounts and too little customer loyalty once that’s gone.
Internet of (another)things…
Or IoT as we have abbreviated it to – a buzzword that we have been hearing long enough to know that it’s not a buzzword anymore. One of the primary areas where it is being used is home automation – there are market leaders like Amazon Alexa and now, Google Home which connect to numerous services and devices. One level below that lie the devices themselves. These are the gadgets and appliances that can replace your current ‘unsmart’ arsenal with capabilities like auto on-off, data insights, preset configurations and a lot more functionality. It’s just that, they don’t really do that.
Home automation companies, most of them to be fair, have been going after the standard hub-smart plug design in which all they offer is switch on-off capabilities from a smartphone. There’s nothing wrong with having basic features – but when almost an entire industry is doing the same thing, it’s bound to kill innovation. Companies like Oakter, Inoho etc are busy building their own hubs and switchboards, which offer identical functionality with a few tweaks here and there. Cubical Labs with its Aura device, is the closest to becoming a differentiator. Home Brain is also offering complete solutions that seem more polished. But overall, there needs to be an urge towards innovation rather than replicating these models if we are to see something like Alexa or Google Home being built, sold, and used at all in India.
They’re killing themselves?
Yes, they are. This trend of developing ‘me too’ products and features by tech companies and startups everywhere is a loss for the companies, as well as consumers in the long run. Companies end up offering customers products that were never really developed in the way that they promised in their marketing. Whilst in principle it is good having competition for the same product types from different companies, in practice, there is often not a big enough market to accommodate the same types of products with the same features and the same price points. It is perhaps one very good reason why following each other blindly is never going to be a particularly good idea.
This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.