Another day, another popular feature copied by Facebook. This time Zuckerberg’s jolly crew decided it would be cool to have some kind of Groupon-esque functionality. That’s why they announced the Facebook Deals service, rolling out in five major US cities, with other locations soon to follow.
Shortly before Facebook decided it wants to be a little bit like Groupon, Google decided it wants to be a little bit like Facebook, and launched its own spin on the “like” button. And before that, Facebook decided it wants to be a little bit like Foursquare – and revealed the Facebook Places service. Twitter Places also emerged, not to mention that Twitter is looking enviously at Google’s promoted results and context ads. In the meantime, Google is working on a new social network (and so does Apple). There’s a great cartoon that pokes at this “quest for originality” in today’s IT world. It’s hard not to agree.
In a game between uniqueness and feature bloat, the bloat wins 3:0.
I hope that before we end up with a set of completely similar online platforms, with the only difference being the logo, someone will finally notice this won’t work. Borrowing features from other apps is not a recipe for success. In fact, this strategy backfired many times.
The sum of all functions
Today, everyone seems to believe that “functionality” increases with every bell and whistle they cram into their platform. I like to think of it as the “piano-vacuum” argument. Why? Well, that’s exactly the sort of thinking that gave birth to this monstrosity. It was not a good piano, and not a good vacuum cleaner. It was pretty much useless. The result proved to be less than a sum of its parts – and that’s very often the case with software.
For example, you’d think that adding a content sharing feature (Buzz) on top of the popular email account (Gmail), would result in a cascade of awesome. But in the real world, only few people embraced the new option – most Gmail users were simply annoyed by Buzz. The same thing happened with Google Wave. Again, a bloated service was stacked on top of the Gmail accounts, and failed miserably.
What about the Facebook email and extended messaging features? “@facebook.com” was supposed to be “the” address to have, but not many bothered to send their emails from Facebook, even though Zuckerberg’s marketing boys and gals touted their service as a Gmail killer. The demand was just not there. People gave a cold shoulder to all off the Facebook’s extended messaging functions – after all they already had way too many chat/messaging/email platforms.
Probably the most glaring example that mixing stuff doesn’t always work, is the Microsoft Clippy. An innocent idea of stacking a cartoonish assistant on top of Microsoft Office resulted in a vile abomination, that caused countless fits of rage. If you think about it, Clippy only offered an additional, overlaid function that could be easily turned off. It didn’t stop it from becoming “one of the worst software design blunders in the annals of computing”, as Smithsonian Magazine called it.
Let it be a warning to all the overzealous developers out there. Sometimes a result is less than a sum of its parts. Much, much less.
The power of simplicity
One more thing to consider – when Facebook launched worldwide it was different from what it is now. It had no walls, and no annoying games and apps that vandalize them. It had no e-mail addresses, no content sharing, no contests and spiffy fan pages. It was tidier, simpler, uncluttered, and it had one, clearly defined purpose. Back then, it was very easy to convey what Facebook is about. I wonder what would happen if it launched in its current state, with all the junk that built up over years. Would it still become a run-away hit?
There might be an answer to that. Few realize, but in the early days Facebook had a vicious competitor, the Campus Network from Columbia University. Their story was sadly omitted in the Social Network flick, even though Zuckerberg met in person with the Campus Network creator, Adam Goldberg, and asked him to join the Facebook team. Both services had a similar philosophy, and CU was way more advanced – it allowed to share and rate content, it offered customizable profile and homepage. Most experts agree, that’s exactly what dragged CU under. Facebook was leaner and meaner, more intuitive. Facebook won. But further along the road, Facebook forgot that and adopted many features similar to Campus Network.
If we talk about simplicity, it’s hard not to mention Google again. For years, they kept their homepage spartan – and thus iconic – and enjoyed tremendous success in the world of web search. Even Microsoft, throwing buckets of cash at their search projects, couldn’t steal their coveted no.1 spot. And how did Google get there? They simply made “clean and uncluttered” their official religion. And that’s precisely why the inclusion of “+1’s” might not turn out to be the best thing.
Apple also seems to forget the lessons of the past. For some time, iTunes was the most popular digital music retail service – and a decent player to boot. Then, Apple started to pump it up with “useful” functions nicked here and there. It added Facebook and Twitter integration, AppleTV, ringtone creation, tons of album extras, at the same time ignoring that most users don’t give a damn. They just want to buy and play music. What they got was a piece of bloatware with a criminally large memory footprint and size. And the fun is just starting! Recently Apple tried to turn this Frankenstein of an app into a fully-fledged social network. With predictably poor results.
The search for uniqueness
The biggest flaw of the copycat tactic is that it stifles innovation. It’s much easier to go after a proven concept, than to think of something radically new. When in 2001 Opera released the first successful tab browsing implementation (pioneered by Netcaptor in 1997), people immediately liked the idea – that’s why other browsers started to copy it without even considering the alternatives. Who knows maybe there are other, way cooler solutions for multi-task surfing? We will never know. Firefox, IE and Chrome all adopted tabs. Same thing happened to “pinning” tabs. Even though the browser market is extremely competitive, it did not encourage any innovation.
That’s the case with all the popular online platforms. Instead of pursuing original ideas, they simply aim to “tick all the boxes”. But do we really need a social version of Google, Facebook web search, or Twitter’s casual games?
I think at some point a game changer app will pop out, with clean UI and simple functionality, that will blow bloated monsters of the old age out of the water. Because at some point adding new features only increases the number of disgruntled users, tired with the clutter or redundancy.
Most users are not looking for new ways of doing the same old things. They want to do new things – and it’s about time someone realized that.