The Audacity of Copying Well

One of the more eye-rolling sentiments in tech — thankfully fading — is that every rectangular device with a touchscreen is a rip-off of the iPhone. Well duh! How else would you make a phone post 2007?

That’s why I’ve always had more respect for Samsung than most; I wrote in 2013 in an article called Shameless Samsung:

Every pre-iPhone phone maker is irrelevant, if they even exist, except for Samsung, who is thriving.1 Samsung the copycat was smart enough to realize they needed to change, and quickly, and so they did.

Or maybe it wasn’t being smart. Maybe it was simply not caring what anyone else thought about them, their strategy, or their inspiration. Most successful companies, including Apple, including Google, seem remarkably capable of ignoring the naysayers and simply doing what is right for their company. In the case of smartphones, why wouldn’t you copy the iPhone? Nokia refused and look where that got them!

To be sure, the physical constraints of hardware lead much more quickly to one ideal solution; the infinite malleability of software seems to give a much more expansive canvas for doing something original. And yet, even if it is possible to build just about anything, the ultimate constraint is the attention of the end user: what do they actually want to do, and does your product help them do it?

Instagram’s Complementarity

Snapchat is hardly the first threat Facebook has faced. While the social network got its start by digitizing offline relationships, implicitly encouraging its users to take care to post the best representation of themselves, usage of the service was fueled by photo sharing. And so, when a new social network built entirely around photo sharing started to explode in popularity, Facebook snapped up Instagram for a mere $1 billion.

Instagram has always been a very different product from Facebook: it is photos only, there are no links or text updates (other than textshots), and while the service has added direct messaging and videos, its primary use case of beautiful images and stylized selfies has been largely complementary to Facebook’s albums and status updates.

Still, while the sort of content shared on Instagram has always been a bit different than that shared on Facebook, the job it does for the user is similar in one crucial regard: Instagram is an opportunity to put forward the best representation of yourself, complete with a feedback loop driven by likes.

The Snapchat Threat

What makes the Snapchat threat to Facebook unique is that it does a fundamentally different job: by starting with ephemerality Snapchat gave its users, initially teens eternally eager to escape adults’ prying eyes, permission to be themselves. And so while Snapchat has photos and videos and messaging — just like Facebook and Instagram — it is not complementary but orthogonal.

In a vacuum this is fine: by virtue of doing a different job Snapchat is not really a threat to Facebook’s (or Instagram’s) core use case or primary value proposition, which is owning identity. Advertising-based consumer products don’t live in a vacuum though, because attention is a zero-sum game: as Snapchat gobbles up more and more attention Facebook’s addressable market for advertising is by definition shrinking.

Small wonder Facebook in 2012 released a clone called Poke soon after Snapchat showed initial traction after its 2011 release. Poke was a separate app that let you send expiring text, photo, or video messages to people in your Facebook network, and predictably it failed: the most important feature of any social network app is how many of your friends are using it, and no one used Poke.

A year later Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg did what he should have done instead of releasing Poke, offering $3 billion to buy Snapchat outright, but it was already too late: Snapchat founder and CEO Evan Spiegel, perhaps emboldened by the then-widespread realization that Instagram had sold too early, turned the offer down, leaving Facebook to try its hand at Slingshot, another Snapchat clone; that failed too.

Meanwhile, Snapchat was laddering up: just before Facebook’s offer the network added Stories, adding the ability to broadcast (still ephemeral) collections of photos and videos to its core messaging product. It was and remains a killer concept: television for mobile in which users are the star of their own show, and the lack of an explicit “like” feedback loop was a feature, not a bug. Post whatever you like, don’t worry if anyone else agrees, and besides, it will all disappear tomorrow.

Instagram Stories

Yesterday Facebook took their third swing at Snapchat; from the New York Times:

On Tuesday, Instagram introduced Instagram Stories, which lets people share photos and videos that have a life span of no more than 24 hours with friends who follow them. The service bears a striking resemblance — some might say it is a carbon copy — to Snapchat Stories, a photo- and video-sharing format where the stories also disappear after no more than 24 hours.

The similarities go beyond ephemerality: Instagram Stories are most easily accessed by a swipe, you can decorate your snaps with text or drawings, and it’s almost certainly only a matter of time before the technology from Facebook’s recent purchase MSQRD is incorporated to add filters. Instagram Stories are absolutely a rip-off — and that’s the first big reason they might succeed where Facebook’s other Snapchat competitors have failed.

Copying Done Right

The first mistake most incumbents make when building new products in response to threatening new competitors is to attempt to win on features. To return to the phone example, Nokia and Microsoft tried to build something distinctly different from the iPhone, with a completely different user interface, features like Live Tiles, and various content hubs. The effort earned plenty of plaudits from the press and pundits eager for something new, but in practice made it far more difficult to secure the apps that actually mattered for becoming a viable platform.

A more pertinent example for this article is Google+. When Google launched their Facebook competitor in 2011 they touted features like Circles to organize your friends, Sparks to find content to share, and Hangouts to video chat. These made Google+ “better” and “differentiated”, which is another way of saying more complicated; meanwhile the most important feature — your friends — was nowhere to be found.

The problem with focusing on features as a means of differentiation is that nothing happens in a vacuum: category-defining products by definition get a lot of the user experience right from the beginning, and the parts that aren’t perfect — like Facebook’s sharing settings or the iPhone’s icon-based UI — become the standard anyways simply because everyone gets used to them.

So good for Instagram: Snapchat’s Stories is a great product that has already gone through years of iterations; why, but for pride, would you build something different?

Still, cloning isn’t enough. The fact features don’t offer useful differentiation does not remove the need for differentiation: the key is figuring out what else can be leveraged. Google, for example, may have largely copied the iPhone’s UI, but the key to Android’s success was the search company’s ability to leverage their advertising-based business model to offer it for free. On the hardware side Samsung leveraged their manufacturing might and long-established distribution channels to dominate the otherwise undifferentiated Android market, at least for a time. And, in perhaps the most famous example of this strategy, Microsoft embraced web standards with Internet Explorer, extended their browser’s capabilities with features like ActiveX, eventually extinguishing the threat when Netscape couldn’t keep up.

Leveraging Instagram

This is why it is so fascinating that Facebook is leveraging Instagram in this way. For all of Snapchat’s explosive growth, Instagram is still more than double the size,2 with far more penetration across multiple demographics and international users. Rather than launch a “Stories” app without the network that is the most fundamental feature of any app built on sharing, Facebook is leveraging one of their most valuable assets: Instagram’s 500 million users.

The results, at least anecdotally, speak for themselves: I’ve seen more Instagram stories in the last 24 hours than I have Snapchat ones. Of course a big part of this is the novelty aspect, which will fade,3 and I follow a lot more people on Instagram than I do on Snapchat. That last point, though, is, well, the point: I and my friends are not exactly Snapchat’s target demographic today, but for the service to reach its potential we will be eventually. Unless, of course, Instagram Stories ends up being good enough.

To that end, kudos to Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom for not only explicitly admitting to TechCrunch that Instagram is copying Snapchat, but also being clear about exactly what he and Zuckerberg are trying to accomplish:

You can’t just recreate another product. But you can say ‘what’s really awesome about a format? And does it apply to our network?’

[…]

You have a completely different audience. If you’re a business, if you’re a celebrity, if you’re an interest-based account, you can have a giant audience. It’s going to feel very different. I don’t believe these two things are substitutes, and that’s okay.

That right there is the tell: Instagram and Facebook are smart enough to know that Instagram Stories are not going to displace Snapchat’s place in its users lives. What Instagram Stories can do, though, is remove the motivation for the hundreds of millions of users on Instagram to even give Snapchat a shot.

Getting consumer adoption of new products is hard; when that adoption requires a network, it’s harder still, at least if most of your network is not using said product; on the flipside, those same difficulties become massive accelerants once the product passes a certain threshold of your friends. Snapchat has passed that threshold amongst teenagers and increasingly young adults in the United States, and every day gets closer with other demographics and geographies.

Instagram, though, is already there, but with a product that does Facebook’s job of presenting your best self. What makes this move so audacious is Zuckerberg and Systrom’s bet that they can refashion Instagram into a product for being yourself, at least to a sufficient degree to hold off Snapchat’s ongoing suction of attention.

It’s not certain Facebook and Instagram will succeed, and the risk is significant: the only thing harder than rewiring users’ expectations for a massively successful product is ensuring said rewiring doesn’t turn them off from the app entirely, destroying the very value you are trying to leverage (and, frankly, it may be too late).

You can see this tension in yesterday’s update: while Instagram Stories demonstrates the company’s excellent engineering and attention to detail, the overall experience is of two completely separate apps combined into one. To take just one example, a photo taken from Instagram’s photo tab can’t be added to a story (although a photo from your story can be added to your Instagram feed4).

That may be intentional: remember, the entire point of Stories is to deliver the exact opposite experience as your Instagram feed — ephemerality and authenticity, not permanence and perfection — but even that justification elucidates how difficult the task will be. If you want something different, why not use a different app?

Oh right, because of your friends. They’re already on Instagram, and that fact isn’t so easily copied.

  1. I had already noted that Samsung would soon face challenges due to the lack of software differentiation entailed in depending on Android []
  2. This originally said five times, which according to this Bloomberg article is out of date []
  3. I do think Instagram erred by not including MSQRD filters from the start, even if it meant a slight delay in launch; they, like Snapchat’s filters, are simply fun []
  4. This originally mistakenly said the opposite []