If you were in a holiday food- and eggnog-induced coma the past few days you missed a really big tech business story.
It's about how Facebook blatantly ripped-off a hot startup – bragged about it – and then fell on its face, to a chorus of alarmed wonderment from around the industry.
The story starts with a smartphone app called Snapchat.
How it works: You take a photo and send it to a friend. The friend gets the photo. But then, after 3 seconds or so, the photo disappears.
Snapchat is very popular. It came out in July, and it is currently number three in the iTunes App Store.
Snapchat is particularly popular with teenagers who supposedly like to use it for sending each other provocative pictures – "sexting" is what we old folks call it.
The cool thing about Snapchat is that it is one of those rare startups that got popular with real users before it started getting hype in the tech press. Those are the ones that have a chance.
But eventually, Snapchat did start getting hyped in the tech press – starting around November and early December.
And then, almost as soon tech press hype started kicking into high gear, Mike Isaac of AllThingsD reported the news: Facebook planned to come out with a Snapchat clone.
Only days after the report, Facebook came out with its app. It's called "Poke," named after a super simple feature from Facebook's early days.
Here is the most important thing you need to know about Poke: It's not so much a Snapchat-competitor or even copycat. It's a complete ripoff – an almost exact clone.
One of the only improvements from Facebook is that in addition to the photos and videos you can send in Snapchat, you can also send text or just a "poke" with Poke.
Otherwise, Poke does the same thing as Snapchat does, just in Facebook blue and white. Om Malik rightly calls it a "xeroxing."
So. After Poke came out, everything looked great for Facebook for a few days.
Facebook pushed distribution of Poke through its already massive installed Facebook iOS app, and Poke quickly shot to number one in Apple's iTunes App Store.
At this point, Facebook PR seemed to hang up a "Mission Accomplished" banner of sorts in the press. Stories leaked that Facebook built the app in only 12 days. Another report surfaced that Mark Zuckerberg himself had worked on the app – that he voiced the sound that Poke's iOS push notification makes. People started talking about the end of Snapchat.
But then something funny started happening.
Poke started dropping in the iTunes rankings. It sank to 34th. Then to 39. Now it's down to 50. Snapchat, meanwhile, remains the third most popular app in the store.
And now, instead of writing stories about how Snapchat is doomed, people are wondering: What's wrong with product development at Facebook?
The many questions boil down to two specific ones:
- Why is Facebook innovation so bad that it has to copy products from smaller startups? Facebook has a long history of copying smaller startups. At various points, it has cloned features from: Instagram, Twitter, Quora, Foursquare, Groupon, and Yelp.
- Why can't Facebook seem to rip off startups that well? Everyone thought Facebook would kill Instagram, Twitter, Quora, Foursquare, Groupon, and Yelp with those products. It did not. At all.
The really scary thing for Facebook is that Poke's failure might reveal a problem that actually goes deeper than its product development team.
Om Malik hinted at this issue when he wrote that Poke's "quick decline in downloads raises some questions about Facebook’s ability to be kingmaker."
It may have helped Zynga when social games and Facebook’s platform were brand new phenomena. Remember how their frictionless sharing was going to change everything, especially for media companies? Well, it didn’t change a lick . Washington Post’s Facebook socialreader is now on the open web. Guardian is no longer interested in wasting its resources on the Facebook reader. Frictionless sharing might have made some video sharing services hot for a day, but the reality has been much harsher for them .
"Is Facebook's app platform, clearly its biggest innovation to date, a bust? Why hasn't there been a second Zynga-like company that has been built on the Facebook app platform? Wasn't there supposed to be a Zynga in a dozen different verticals? What happened to the 'social operating' system?"
Here is the point Calacanis and Malik are getting at – one that should really worry Facebook: Maybe Poke's failure isn't about flaws in Facebook's product ideation or product-building.
Maybe Poke's failure actually reveals a flaw in Mark Zuckerberg's long-term vision for Facebook as a platform.
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