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In our recent podcast on copying, we talked about the usual story that people tell about the need for patents: that they protect up and coming startups from being wiped out by “big companies with lots of money” that are simply copying their good ideas. During the podcast, we try to come up with a single example of that actually happening, and we even search the internet looking for examples — and find it very difficult to come up with a legitimate example. It almost never happens. As we’ve discussed, in the rare cases when “copying” succeeds, it’s because the second company doesn’t really copy, but actually comes up with a better product, which is something we should celebrate. When they just copy, they tend to only be able to copy the superficial aspects of what they see, rather than all the underlying tacit thinking that makes a product good. We’ve referred to it as cargo cult copying after the infamous cargo cults of World War II, who built fake airports, hoping that if they had those fake airports, all of the stuff that came with American soldiers would return.
As you may have heard, Google is finally admitting that its attempt at a Facebook killer, Google Plus, is now basically dead. Mashable has a fantastic post mortem, in which it quickly becomes clear that Google fell for the same old pitfall: cargo cult copying of Facebook:
Interviews with more than a dozen Google insiders and analysts in recent months, many speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, paint the Google of 2010-2011 as increasingly fearful of Facebook snatching away users, employees and advertisers. Google tried to mobilize itself quickly, but approached the task with all the clumsiness of a giant trying to dance with a younger, nimble startup.
Google launched Plus without a clear plan to differentiate the service from Facebook. It bet on a charismatic leader with a flawed vision, ignored troubling indications about the social network’s traction (or lack thereof) with users and continued throwing features at the wall long after many had written Google+ off for dead.
The slow demise of Google+ sheds light on how a large technology company tries and often fails to innovate when it feels threatened.
Ars Technica, similarly, has a good post mortem detailing how Google basically did everything wrong when it came to trying to get into the “social” game:
Google+ was, in a word, “forced.” It was forced not only into products and on users but onto the rest of the company, too. In 2011, for instance, Larry Page famously tied all employee bonuses to the company’s success in social. It was easy to see why Page decided to do this at the time: Facebook was big and growing and scary. What if people stopped using search and just asked their friends for websites and product recommendations?
With a fear-powered, top-down mandate and every employee having a vested interest in Google+, the social network got shoehorned into every Google product. Google+ showed up in Search, Android, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Play, and many others.
Google+ certainly isn’t the first social Google product, but it is the latest in a long line of social failures that the company still doesn’t seem to have learned from. It’s not that Google can’t build great social products—it can—it just continually misjudges which of its social products are good (or even which of its products are social) and therefore deserve the company’s focus. Google’s social past seems to follow a pattern: throw resources behind social products few people want and try to compel adoption, while neglecting the social products people do want.
And yet… despite all of these failures, you still hear people talking about the importance of things like patents, or the “fear” that Google or other large companies will suddenly enter the market and easily beat startups that are in the space, “because they’re so big.” Or “because they can just throw money at it.” And, yet, that almost never works. In fact, as we’ve seen with Google and social, they can be exceptionally clumsy at it.
Does that mean that there are no examples of it happening? Of course not. It does happen (and one could even argue that Android is a good example of Google copying iOS). But the idea that the big company always wins or that it’s somehow “easy” for big companies to wipe out little companies just isn’t supported by that much evidence. If a startup is doing something really amazing and innovative that people actually want, you can almost always guarantee that (1) the big companies will totally miss the boat for way too long and (2) once they finally wake up, be clumsy and ridiculous in their attempts to copy. On that one, there are lots of examples. Microsoft has spent the past few decades making that same mistake. Google has done it with social. Some are suggesting Apple’s latest attempt to get into streaming music is the same thing (though it’s a bit early to say on that).
People think it’s easy to copy because copying seems like it should be easy. But it’s not. You can only copy the parts you can see, which leaves out an awful lot of understanding and tacit knowledge hidden beneath the surface. It also leaves out all the knowledge of what doesn’t work that the originator has. And, finally, it ignores the competing interests within a larger business that make it much harder for those companies to innovate.
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