Cheap imitations of tech products: killing the goose that lays the golden eggs
A small number of organisations are making it their business to copy other people's products and attack the companies behind the original idea. It's a dangerous trend, but some organisations, including certain exceptionally powerful and influential corporations, have adopted it as part of their business model. It's happening with increasing frequency, so I decided to create this page as a warning and to help me keep track.
Through prolific marketing and PR, combined with the skilful nurturing of fan communities, these organisations have succeeded in persuading a small but disproportionately vocal minority of people that what they're doing is cool and trendy. In innovation there is always element of incorporating previous ideas, but the organisations I'm talking about here are stretching this delicately-balanced principle far beyond its breaking point.
Let's take a closer look at a sample of well-documented cases in which certain products and companies are blatantly copying other people's products and seeking to destroy the organisation that came up with the idea. (There's a list of well-documented examples below.) Fortunately, in most cases so far, the impostor has failed, generally due to incompetence, despite investing astronomical sums of money on developing the product and trying to force it down our throats. The hype and buzz surrounding some of these product launches has been excessive, to the point of being ridiculous. Evidently, certain organisations underestimate the ability of ordinary consumers to see through the hype; they might be the hottest thing in the media and on particular tech blogs, but that's as far as it goes.
A major ideological war is raging in the tech industry, and thankfully the good-guys are winning. If the bad guys won the war, the companies behind some of the most important innovations in the history of human civilisation would be metaphorlcally lined-up against a wall and shot, and if you'll permit me to invoke a wise old metaphor, it would be like "killing the goose that lays the golden eggs". In other words, if we lose some of our most important innovators, what will there be for the imposters to copy next? In the future, people will be cautious about emerging from the ashes with a new original idea. What incentives are there to invest your time and money in a new innovation, within an environment where predators are lurking ready to steal it? Cheap imitations are like a terminal disease from which the evolution of technology would never recover.
The consumer has the power to choose, but they must do so responsibly. There will always be a corrupt underclass of consumers who selfishly buy to suit themselves, whether or not it's morally or legally wrong. For example, there will always be a black-market in counterfeit designer brands, along with tobacco-smuggling, people-trafficking, drug-dealing, software piracy, terrorism, violence, murder, etc, and everything else associated with the underworld which profits most from corruption. The rest of us, as responsible citizens, must address the balance by bearing the burden of our moral and legal duty to do the right thing.
Google: the arch-villain of the early tech age?
Google is the worst offender in all of this. What really sets Google apart, though, is how aggressively and underhandedly they subsequently attack the company whose ideas they've taken.
Google has been caught manipulating search results to disadvantage competitors and critics. The EU is investigating, but Google is offering a cash settlement to avoid going on trial. Unsurprisingly, Google wants to settle "out-of-court" -- which would stop the public getting details of exactly what they have been doing. The EU is probably corrupt and bloated enough to take the easy option and accept the pay-off. They've submitted to Google's lobbying in the past.
More than anything, Google's staff seem to enjoy publically criticising Microsoft. They can dish it out, but can they take it? This is one of the key reasons why I like to keep a watchful eye on Google.
Let's take a look at some key examples of Google's copying other people's stuff:-
- Google Search. Their flagship web search was launched into a marketplace with lots of other search engines, including Yahoo and many others. It was innovative. The core principles could hardly have been more simple -- make search results relevant and index the content of as many websites as possible -- but it made a huge difference. To be fair, the competition at the time was abysmal. Yahoo was number one, yet their service was far from satisfactory -- and their index seemed to be based on which websites were willing to pay for the privilege rather than which web pages were most relevant. However, as we can clearly see throughout the rest of this list and elsewhere, Google's innovation doesn't extend far beyond search, and that was a decade ago! Google.com has hardly changed since, but the web has moved on. Yet even the slightest change made to Google.com becomes major news. Unlike Microsoft, Google build their systems using programming- languages, frameworks and platforms created by other people -- from their database engines to their server-side web apps.
- Gmail from the outset was blatantly copying Hotmail, Yahoo mail, and other much older webmail portals. Despite huge investment and an unprecedented push, Gmail has never over-thrown the top two webmail services. Gmail is Not an abject failure, but given Google's position and exposure, presumably not the success they were hoping for.
- Docs is openly Google's effort to emulate MS Office. And as usual Google acquired that product, they did not innovate it. The timing of the acquisition was probably no coincidence: it happened just after Bill Gates had personally announced that Microsoft was working on the free web-based version of MS Office, which we now know as MS Office web apps and also Docs.
- YouTube was purchased by Google, not innovated by them, presumably because it's a bit more complicated so they couldn't easily just copy it as normal. Google still hasn't worked out how to make money from YouTube, it loses millions each year.
- Android is blatantly an attempt to copy Apple's iPhone and iOS. And Android is actually just an instance of Java running on a piece of hardware. Java is somebody else's technology platform which, incidentally, Google is using without permission!
- Crome. Did the world really need another web browser? Web developers certainly don't; it's already hard enough to build web applications that work on every different platform. Chrome is just a reworking of WebKit anyway! Google lobbied the EU, arguably the most corrupt and bloated institution in the history of human civilisation, as an "interested party" to force Microsoft to prompt Windows all users with an option to uninstall IE and install competitors' products instead! Next, shall we ask Apple to put a launch screen on every Mac with the option to install Windows? That's how crazy it is. Windows 7 runs perfectly on a Macbook Pro. All became clear when they surreptitiously announced their own web browserm which has been forced down our throats ever since. And now Google is abusing their position as a browser vendor to interfere with things, like Google's recent video codec hijacking move that will impede progress in web technology and the adoption of HTML5. (This is just the beginning. Last year Google spent more on lobbying than Apple, Facebook and Yahoo combined! It's profoundly sinister. Where big corporations are involved, "lobbying" tends to be a euphemism for manipulating politics, subverting the democratic process, and deceiving the public -- and Google is doing it on a scale so vast that it genuinely has the potential to influence the course of human civilisation, just so Google can have their way and of course earn huge profits. But don't worry, they're the good guys, right? If you think Google is a purely benevolant force with no commercial agenda, you'd better wake up.) Even IE8 was superior to Chrome.
- Buzz was an unashamed attempt to destroy Twitter -- billed as the "Twitter killer". The term "kill" has become a codeword for Google wanting to take customers away from a rival or put them out of business altogether. But it turned out to be just another Google failure, and the company's embarrassment, failing flat on its face yet again, was amplified by extraordinary quantity of hype before it was launched. I used Buzz for a while, and I still have my account. What struck me more than anything about the other users, when I looked at their profiles, is that they were obviously Google employees -- presumably following orders passed-down the hierarchy. The same thing happened with Google Wave, the "email killer", possibly the most hyped launch in history, which was another outstanding Google fail (GFail). This is an instructive example of Google's realisation that the web has now moved on from search, with the next evolutionary stage having an integral social dimension. Google has been left behind.
- Google Checkout -- "the PayPal killer that didn't kill PayPal" (to quote CNN, "another flop by Google").
- Hotpot is probably the most recent example. Google tried to buy Yelp, but thankfully they failed. Google's reaction was to lash out angrily with the launch of a "Yelp killer" called Hotpot off the back of Google Places (Google Local), with the clear intention of stealing customers from Yelp and Foursquare -- trying to put the original pioneers out of business. Allow me to make a prediction: this will be another Google-fail (GFail).
- Google Offers is probably the best-known recent example (when I started writing this list). Google tried to buy Groupon, who like Yelp wisely resisted the temptations of the dark-side. Also like Yelp, Google's reaction was to attack the girl they were ready to marry five minutes earlier, launching an all-out war. Another Google-fail (GFail). As the great monster tramples over other people's territory, the reaction from certain tech blogs and 's fan communities is to stand on the sidelines and cheer like madmen. There's nothing to celebrate -- at any moment the multi-headed hydra is likely to spawn a new head, and next it could easily be your own personal livelihood that Google sets its sights on attacking.
This list by no means not exhaustive, obviously, it's just a typical sample. What Google can't plagiarise, they buy instead, investing that vast wealth accumulated from search. Acquisition is not the same thing as innovation. Google employees have propagated the myth of their innovation for so long, they've begun to believe it. (For deeper insight, a perusal of Wikipedia's list of Google's known acquisitions complete with the timing and official rationale in each case, is highly reccomended.)
- OpenOffice is a lamentable effort to copy MS Office. All the myths and misconceptions about the open-source philosophy are embodied by this product. It's "free" but that's a false economy. It was recently renamed "LibreOffice" after the original project fell apart (one organisation involved was Oracle). Experience has taught me that free and open-source are great for minor apps, libraries and utilities. But it's foolhardy to shackle mission-critical work to free and open source projects. I'm currently working on a major project with the BBC and others, and I am reminded of the lessons I've learned each time I am unable to download the latest code release because Github returns bad gateway errors when I'm up against a critical deadline. I have personal experience with countless other examples. Like when Hudson became Jenkins (Oracle again). Google facing legal action over their use of open source in Android (Oracle again). Etc. If you search the web for "open source" and "we have a life" you'll find plenty of examples of open-source projects where, if you need support, you're reminded that it's essentially just a hobby for the developers who are happy work for free but on their terms.
[Note: I will keep this list under continuous review and improve it and update it as necessary.]
Where is Microsoft in all of this? Why don't they make like Google and try to buy Facebook? There's no need. They own a share of Facebook, and Facebook's search is powered by their Bing search platform. But unlike Google, Microsoft doesn't feel compelled to plaster their logo on a cool product in order to get a piece of the action. This subtle, steady strategy is less visible, and generates less hype. And this is what I think really defines Microsoft and almost everything they do: there's no excitement or fanfare, it's just there, and it does the job well.
Microsoft's style and culture constitutes a serious disadvantage against the likes of Google and Apple. Microsoft's marketing and PR is chronically pathetic, and its staff are reluctant and consider themselves too professional to dis or criticise their commercial rivals. This pathogenic professionalism is endemic -- right down to individual employees I speak to, and even exists behind closed doors. I must admit, deep-down I think I actually respect it. The opposite is true at Google and Apple. (I won't name names). For employees of Apple and Google, it's standard practice to attack Microsoft online and in person. I'll illustrate this with a typical anecdote from late last year. We invited a guy from Apple into the office to do a talk on Safari, and he took every opportunity to make jokes and digs about Microsoft and IE. One of his slides consisted of logos for every major browser inside a box labelled "HTML5" and outside the box was a solitary IE logo. Corporate propaganda is insidious. Ironically, this occurred just a few days after the W3C had declared IE9 the most HTML5-compliant browser! Let's be honest, when the previous version of IE was launched, other browsers didn't support HTML5 either -- critics of IE love to compare new browsers with old versions of IE, but it's a little disingenuous to do so. Watching Microsoft vs Google is like putting a tame monkey (Microsoft) in a cage with a hungry wild dog (Google) and seeing the fight. The monkey isn't doing much in the way of attacking, but that doesn't mean the dog is superior in any way. Metaphors are such a beautiful way of articulating what's going down in the tech industry sometimes! ;)
04 February 2011