Google CEO Larry Page recently pooh-poohed the idea of imitating other companies. The company's focus, he declared, is tackling "moon shot" projects -- like building self-driving cars, augmented reality spectacles and lightning-fast broadband networks.
"We're one of the bigger companies of the world, and I'd like to see us do more stuff," Page told Wired. "Not just do what somebody else has done, but something new."
Fast forward two months: Google has just unveiled a note-taking, idea-tracking application, Keep, that's a clone of Evernote's own. It seems Google's moonshot endeavors include testing how effectively -- and how quickly -- it can reproduce what somebody else has done.
Even as Google has dreamed up far-out products unlike anything the world has seen, it has also proven itself an eager and aggressive imitator. And contrary to what Page's Wired interview might suggest, Keep is merely the latest in Google's ever-expanding line of clones: Google has copied Dropbox (Google Drive), Groupon (Google Offers), iTunes (Google Play), Apple's App Store (formerly Google Market, now Google Play), Yelp (Google Places) and Bit.ly (Goo.gl). Google Docs, a suite of office software, mimics not only the function of Microsoft's Word, Excel and Powerpoint, but has reproduced the color scheme of each. The icon for Google's documents tool is blue, the logo for Google's spreadsheets tool is green, and its PowerPoint-like presentations have a yellow theme, just like Microsoft's.
The disconnect between Page's innovation-or-bust stance and Google's knockoff tendencies highlights a larger tension that permeates the tech world: The companies that tout themselves as the most innovative in the world are also master imitators who regularly rip each other off. And, it turns out, not only do they have to copy, but we should hope they do.
Though a string of experts have argued that imitation and innovation feed off each other, Silicon Valley still traffics in the myth of innovation through a kind of divine intervention, and, more often than not, considers "copy" a dirty word. At the START conference in New York City last week, for example, several startups held a panel titled, "Know your enemy: copycats, competitors and partners." Entrepreneurs and engineers frequently describe their products in ways that suggest their ideas weren't created, they just occurred. And the digerati's favorite buzzword -- "disruption" - only adds to the impression that a new app, gadget or service is the equivalent of an earthquake: an entirely unexpected thing that strikes suddenly, seems to have no exact origin, and, on impact, upends the status quo.
Even as executives denounce their clones, many of the year's most innovative companies (so-called by Fast Company) have been churning out copies faster than you can say "Keep."
Facebook has cloned so many services, including Groupon, Quora, Instagram, Snapchat and Foursquare, that it's become a kind of social media Wal-Mart, offering every communication tool ever imagined. Amazon has replicated Gilt Groupe, Groupon, the App Store and Dropbox, to name just a few. Apple has created its own versions of Skype, BlackBerry Messenger, Instapaper, Dropbox, Foursquare and Postagram, among many others -- and this from the company whose CEO declared, following the verdict in his copyright infringement suit against Samsung, "We value originality and innovation and pour our lives into making the best products on earth. And we do this to delight our customers, not for competitors to flagrantly copy." It's not only the startups that get copied, either. Big companies are just has happy to steal from each other, as the large number of MacBook clones goes to show.
These tech colossi boast so many users and such economies of scale that imitation is irresistible. But even with their enormous distribution networks, which would seem to virtually guarantee an instant population of users, clones frequently fail to supplant the originals they were meant to replace.
In tech, copying isn't just commonplace: it's crucial.
The clone boom has its roots in the ongoing war over the ecosystem, that digital universe of apps, movies, magazines, books and music that every major tech player is hoping to provide. Because customers no longer only consider the hardware of whatever gadget they buy (but also the world of content which they're signing up to access with that device), every company now wants to be all things to all people.
Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook are turning into the all-expenses-paid cruiseships of the tech world, positioning themselves as a one-stop-shop for every purchase, every storage need and piece of entertainment. If people are downloading music on their phones, every firm wants to have music store. If people are tapping location services to find their friends, then each tech giant wants to have its own way to help people track each other (hence all-but-identical services like Apple's Find My Friends, Google Latitude and Facebook Places).
Of course, all this cloning doesn't mean people aren't also developing new ideas and approaches; it's just that the two are more intertwined than they might seem at first. Innovating can often mean copying better than the other guy, and creating a new-and-improved offering may entail launching a clone with only a slight twist on the original that, though minor, makes all the difference. Facebook, for example, took the Myspace and Friendster models, but had the genius idea to make people use their real names when they signed up. Google followed Yahoo and Microsoft into webmail, but offered accounts with mind-boggling storage space.
While entrepreneurs and chief executives declare war on copycats, the rest of us have reason to cheer them. More copies mean more choice, as well as more competition to create offerings that will delight us. Eventually, all this imitation raises the overall experience, and makes standout features seem standard. Once upon a time, we relied on a dedicated service, like Skype, for our video chatting needs. Now, video chat is built into Gchat, comes pre-installed on every iPhone and is merely an add-on on Facebook's messaging tool.
At the same time, the ease and speed with which companies can copy might push entrepreneurs beyond build-it-flip-it startups that merely offer neat features that are variations on well worn theme, and instead, encourage them to create novel, distinct products, tools, or services that represent landmark innovations. After all, the more ambitious and unprecedented an entrepreneur's deliverables, the more more difficult they may be to replicate.