Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Clone Wars Part 2: Pros and Pitfalls

100425518_97523445be My last post was the first in my Clone Wars series. Clone, in this context, is a web enterprise that is pretty much a copycat of another existing one. I suggested that that is not necessarily a bad thing and there is a history of highly successful enterprises that started as a clone of a predecessor. Creating an enterprise that is a copy of an existing one has its benefits, but I think the pitfalls exceed the benefits.

First the benefits. It doesn’t take a lot of work to create a clone. Not as much work as when you conceptualise, research, stretch the borders of know computer and internet use and have to introduce a new paradigm of doing things. With cloning, the concept is already out there. The hard engineering has been done. There may even be open source code or toolkits that help you create your clone. Consequently you can have your solution up and running with a lot less effort than if you had to create something unique. You end up getting to market a lot more quickly.

When you are copying a well-known product, people are already familiar with the concepts behind your product. So if you have used the iPhone or the iPod Touch, then using Android is very familiar already. Almost every search engine is used exactly the same way. This benefit means people can begin using your product very quickly.

Another benefit is that cloning gives you a point of reference to work with in applying the same solution to different problems. So Yammer uses Twitter as a point of reference and built a Twitter clone that is used within organisations. What they did was clone an existing product set and target it at an a different demographic. Similarly, because no product is perfect, you can take the basic feature set and tack on something that addresses the weaknesses. So when Facebook created universal “Like” and the “Open Graph” protocol, there was a backlash against the perceived privacy issues and annexing the Internet. This resulted in the launching of an initiative called the “Open Like” project with a goal to create the best features of Facebook’s new system without any of the baggage.

Now for the pitfalls. The problem with cloning is when there is a dominant player whose features you are emulating you have a lot more work to do in convincing people that they should use yours instead of the “incumbent”. I have had debates in these pages and on other sites on why it is hard for me to switch from Twitter, Facebook and Bit.ly to similar local products that emulate their features. My argument at core is that I don’t see anything attractive enough in the alternatives to switch. You will always have that problem with a copycat product. What makes it more difficult is that sometimes you do add a feature that is compelling and different and just when people are thinking of actually moving over to your offering, Google implements something that suddenly moves it even further ahead of your offering.

Another problem of doing this is that you run the risk of your product being defined only in the context of the product you cloned. Like in secondary school where younger siblings with popular brothers or sisters are only known as so and so’s younger brother, you may only be known as the iPhone wannabe. That is not somewhere you want to be. It becomes a lot tougher to differentiate yourself and differentiate is what you absolutely have to do. Mind you, this could play in your favour especially where, like the aforementioned iPhone, the other product is more expensive or less accessible to your target audience.

Lastly, and I think this is the most important pitfall, by cloning an existing product you run the risk of solving a problem that doesn’t exist in your environment while ignoring rich opportunities that you could be addressing. Do we need Twitter clones? Facebook Clones? Nigerian search engines? A local YouTube? A Nigerian Yahoo? Maybe we do and maybe we don’t. However I can list a whole bunch of other things that we definitely do need that our brightest and best are not bending their considerable talents to because they are solving problems that don’t exist. Why clone eBay when you can bulid a Web of Trust platform can be used as the backbone for a thousand services that need authentication and validation in a society the western systems for identity documentation (drivers licenses, passport and social security numbers) are unreliable at best?

Cloning may be what your do and you stand a chance of creating a successful product, but I would suggest you aim higher and put your creativity to work conquering problems that surround you that no one else has solved.


The Clone Wars continue…

Very eerie image taken from Flickr courtesy of Imapix