Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Clone Wars: Part One

star_wars__clone_wars_poster For some time I have been planning to do a series of articles called, euphemistically, “the Clone Wars” because the jump-off point was the large number of web enterprises that seem to be copies or clones of other better known web enterprises.  The idea for this series has percolated in my mind for some time, shifting and taking form being shaped by new information, events and perspectives.

Most recently, I was at BarCamp Nigeria 2010. The theme was “Creating Local Content for Nigerian Web Market”. I was meant to moderate a panel on the subject of “Business Models”. This meant that there would be a panel of experienced internet entrepreneurs to answer questions that I would put to them on behalf of the audience. Unfortunately due to time overruns, that panel couldn’t take place which was unfortunate because it would have been a valuable discussion. I bring that up because the whole issue of clones is an issue of business models. So the Clone Wars series will ultimately be an exploration of some of the possible business models available in the Nigerian business space, and the pros and cons of each of them.

To be absolutely clear, what I call a clone is not necessarily a duplicate of an existing web enterprise. That would be bordering on copyright infringement. That’s not what we are talking about here. For our purposes, a clone is a web enterprise that has similar features to another one. It usually tries to solve the same problem the other “original” site is solving, usually with the same approach. Sometimes, even the name lets you know that the that the site is doing that. So “Twitter”, a sound a bird makes. “Kukurooku”, a sound a bird (rooster) makes. Kukurooku imitates the micro-blogging phenomenon called Twitter.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Everything we celebrate now as new and fresh found its existence in some previous iteration. It would be hard to believe that before Zuckerberg built the first version of Facebook in his dorm he wasn’t already aware, and maybe even a member, of such sites as MySpace, Friendster and Hi5. The graphic below shows the timeline of the creation of social networking sites both familiar and obscure.

Figure 1. Distribution of work task interruption

The original Facebook might well have been envisioned from using one of these sites. Zuckerberg may have reasoned that he could do it better than they were doing it. Maybe he decided that he could build a Friendster that would serve his college community better than the big site (local content anyone?). Maybe there was some massively irritating thing he kept running to in the sites of the day which everyone he know also hated that he wanted to fix. Facebook created in isolation? Highly unlikely. Even today, until they bought FriendFeed, Facebook was notorious for cloning their features.

So the social networking clones of today are following in the footsteps of others that went before. One of the things that has always happened in the business world is that people emulate those who have been successful in the same enterprise. So if Twitter is hot right now and people are flocking to it in droves, it makes sense that if there is something about Twitter that draws customers in their millions, we can build something similar that draws customers at least in their hundreds of thousands. We may even reach and exceed the millions that the original had. When Google shot to number one, there were incumbents like Ask Jeeves, Lycos and AltaVista . Yammer, a Twitter clone for business is certainly making a go of it.  Surely either Pepsi Cola or Coca Cola is a clone of the other. Both are very large businesses today.

However, there are both benefits and risks to cloning and we will explore them in our next instalment.


Timeline Image courtesy of Danah M. Boyd and Nicole B. Ellison’s Article on “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”.

Clone Wars poster courtesy of www.fantascienza.com and is almost certainly the property of LucasFilm.