Nearly every week it seems like Google introduces a new product that emulates one already popular with Internet users. This week it was Majel (a name that perhaps only diehard Star Trek fans can fully appreciate), which is Google's answer to Apple's Siri. Last week, it was Google Currents, which is the company's take on the ever-popular Flipboard app. And before that, it was Google+, the company’s answer to Facebook. This year seems like one product announcement after another from Google, each squarely aimed at a competitor’s offering. Has Google — long considered one of America’s most innovative companies — lost its mojo, or has something fundamentally changed in the way that Internet companies are being forced to think about innovation?
Not long ago, the act of “copying” a product nearly feature-for-feature would have been taken as a sign of innovation inferiority. After all, the conventional wisdom is that only the Chinese produce cheap Internet knockoffs, while real Silicon Valley companies design products from scratch. All of those hot new Chinese Internet companies like Weibo — aren’t they just Twitter, Facebook and Amazon copycats?
But something has fundamentally changed with the hyper-sharing, hyper-participatory culture made possible by the Internet. Ideas rocket across national borders instantaneously. They are copied and improved upon within impossibly short timelines. That royal wedding you watched on TV this spring? Not only did the Chinese get a near-total copy of the wedding dress to market, they copied the whole wedding. That exclusive handbag you saw on the runway during New York Fashion Week? It’s probably selling downtown on Canal Street for less than the cost of a taxicab from midtown Manhattan. At this rate, it wouldn’t come as much of a shock if the American drone downed by the Iranians, will somehow get copied and sold on the world market sooner rather than later.
That same story is just being repeated at an even larger scale across the Internet every day. And it’s not just Google. Anything Facebook can do, Twitter can do. Anything Twitter can do, LinkedIn can do. That celebrated Facebook Timeline rolling out to Facebook users? Twitter beat Facebook to market on that one, by nearly a week. In many ways, though, it no longer matters if you’re first-to-market. The “first-mover advantage” celebrated during the first Web boom has been replaced by “second-mover advantage” made possible by the Internet knockoff economy. Is it any wonder that all of these social networking sites are starting to look alike?
Rapid prototyping, iterative innovation and the ability to “pivot” quickly are all a way of telling the same story — being fast is more important than being first. As Francisco Dao recently pointed out in a Washington Post guest column, too many efforts to become “first” are really just mis-timed efforts to gain a bit of Internet notoriety and “making a scene” rather than a serious effort at building a long-lasting company: “The basic model seems to be: Get a TechCrunch writeup, make a lot of noise, cash out quickly and maybe linger on as a pseudo tech celebrity.”
This has implications not only for the companies at the bottom of the food chain that are just starting out — but also for the established tech giants like Google and Apple. As these companies focus on building massive ecosystems of products and services, is it better for them to support the creation of fast innovators at the edge, or to just build their own rival versions? For now, it looks the answer is the latter, not the former. It is now the Americans, not the Chinese, who are running the Internet knockoff economy.
Full disclosure: Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.
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