July 28, 2008

Me-Too Software and Web Apps Often Find Their Own Niche

As the price to develop Web applications and communities has decreased, and investment in people is less-demanding, it's no surprise that we've seen a boom in sites with significant similarities - be they social networking, lifestreaming, status updaters, online file storage or virtual worlds. While the rule holds true in software as it does in Silicon Valley, that the vast majority of products may meet a less than optimal fate, the potential payout continues to draw development, with new brand names hitting our RSS feeds on a daily basis.

The seeming onslaught of new services had the omnipresent Chris Brogan asking frustratedly yesterday, "Who's writing all these me too software apps? Do they feel accomplished?" Brogan later gave the services Kwippy and Yokway as examples of two services that had recently come across his view, adding, "(I) just dont' see why we need yet another of something we have in spades. Where's the innovation?"

Sometimes, in this age of instant analysis, determining the differentiation and purpose of a new site can be hard, especially as the bloggers and technology reporters try and grasp the new site and place it in the context of existing applications that are more well-known. (See: Inquisitr: Yokway: Sort of FriendFeed Meets Del.icio.us for one example)

Whether it's in the name of differentiation or competition, it's rare that a developer or startup team will be aiming to make a carbon copy of an existing site. RSSmeme debuted, after ReadBurner, to show the most shared items in Google Reader, and progressed differently, offering a custom FeedFlare and featuring deeper index with more linkblogs than ReadBurner, while ReadBurner partnered with multiple RSS engines, including NewsGator and Netvibes. Facebook was like MySpace and Friendster before it, but initially just for the college set and later high school, before opening up, and later adding a development platform.

There is a long history of services and software that have striking similarities to one another. That a product exists doesn't mean that any potential competing product should walk away and cede the market, delivering a monopoly. As Disqus' CEO Daniel Ha told me back in June, the existence of competitors like SezWho, Intense Debate and JS-Kit help let him know he's in a worthwhile market to pursue, even if it's a rare blogger who has plans to implement multiple commenting engines. The existence of Digg didn't stop Mixx from debuting, and the existence of HotBot, Lycos and Excite didn't look like too much of a hurdle for Google to get going.

Rob Diana of Regular Geek, in the FriendFeed comment thread spawned by Brogan's question, said, "Until someone dominates the space you will see a lot of similar applications," while Clint Ecker wrote, "The market will bear out the niche products and the unsatisfactory ones will fade away and disappear until the community has selected the 'best' service."

But even the selection of a "best service" doesn't mean there won't be more developers trying to crack the market. Plurk and Identi.ca are two recent approaches to microblogging, taking on Twitter. And Cuil's entry into the search market came at a time when Google's enjoyed its largest market share ever. The likelihood of these challenger sites to replace the market behemoths is very small, both short term and longer term, but just about every site and service can develop a dedicated community who swears by it - arguably making the developers' efforts worthwhile. You recently saw this happen when the niche community sites of Ballhype and Showhype, arguably Digg clones, were acquired for $3 million.

From the outside looking in, developers don't see themselves as copycats. Instead, they likely see opportunity, finding weaknesses in a competitor's offering, or finding a new way to seemingly offer the best of both worlds. And just because they aren't enjoying a majority market share in a given metric by a certain time period doesn't mean their efforts were in vain. There's no hard and fast law saying you need to sign up for every lifestreaming service, every social network, every microblogging client and every RSS reader, but as more options and alternatives are out there, there will be a small group of people who prefers the new entrant, whether it be for its GUI, its compatibility with plug-ins, widgets or extensions, or implied productivity.

As an early adopter, I'll usually be checking out most of these services, and I welcome more. It's not about finding how much they're all the same, but determining the differences, and seeing what I can do that's new. I might, sometimes, never use a service again, if I don't find it to do what I had hoped. But often, when I check back in a few months later, I'll find a small community that's calling it home, or see the development didn't stop at day one, making it a richer experience. So, development community, keep it coming. Let's see those new apps, the new innovation, and the new services. It will never be enough.