The Mad Dash to Clone Mobile Applications: Worth It?

cloning war

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Or is it just an idiom designed to make original innovators feel better when someone rips off their wonderful ideas? Well, it would seem so for countless mobile app developers who breathe life to their original ideas through wonderful applications that take the world by storm, only to have them copied and made a cheap mockery of. Search for ‘Tinder Clone’, ‘Flappy Bird Clone’ or ‘Uber Clone’ on Google and you’d see the hubris that the Cloneville is.

The latest instance of mobile app cloning that has got everyone sitting up and paying attention is that of the hordes of clones that are seeking to emulate successful apps. ‘Uber for X’ is a concept that has spread like wildfire, attracting anyone who wants Uber-like functionality for their on-demand service. What originally takes months and millions of dollars to create is available to purchase as a bundle for small entrepreneurs who can’t afford the time, money or super-human effort.

The value proposition – Why bother sweating out 15 hours a day and millions in investment, when you can buy a clone for $200 and get a false sense of achievement that would last for 20 seconds?

Cloning mobile apps is rife with ethical conundrums as evident from discussions like these online. But ethical issues apart, what is for certain is that clones are extremely pesky sources of nuisance for original creators. Leaving aside the concerns of the original creators, clones let down their buyers as well (I promise to talk about it at the end!).

Cloning case 1: Flappy Bird, originally created by Dong Nguyen and famously withdrawn after a month, was followed by multitudes of clones. In fact, according to this Forbes article, there was one clone created every 24 minutes.

Cloning case 2: Another story of cloning has been described in this article. A beautiful mess is an app that allows users to augment photographs and background patterns. It had only been released for three months, when search results revealed that clones and rip-offs were crowding the rankings, making the original drop to the fifties. Most of them used identical names, icons, design, functionality and more. With legal recourse promising to be too expensive, the team behind the original reported the cases to Apple who in turn apprehended the cloners. The usual tactic in such cases is to feign innocence. Some of the clones were removed after a few weeks, post which the original saw an improvement in the rankings.

Cloning case 3: Another instance of cloning overshadowing original innovations – the story of a well-designed puzzle app called Threes. Created by a development company called Sirvo, Threes was a paid game launched in early 2014. A clone called 1024 addressed the needs of audiences who sought a free version of the Threes app. This was then ripped-off by a clone app called 2048 which in turn had many variations follow. Fortunately for Sirvo, they didn’t face a crisis regarding market share due to the clones.

On the surface it would seem like cloning is a bigger problem in Google Play Store than Apple simply because scrutiny is so much tighter with Apple. However, to quote David Price from this article, “The App Store….retains a tolerance for mid-level scumbaggery that irritates all of us who prize innovative software design. The shameless carpetbaggers who turn up hungrily after someone else has done the real work are a blight on the industry.”

Many a time, platforms like App Store don’t require apps to be original in terms of deeper functionalities, only the superficial details such as naming, overall look and feel and so on. In fact, the App Store’s search functionality provides exposure to not just originals but also ample amounts of cloned apps.

Taking legal action against such rip-offs is difficult mainly because it is very hard to trademark functionality or gameplay of a particular app and more so for small app publishers. They are, understandably, at the mercy of the app marketplaces to strike down on these enterprising yet pesky clone-makers.

The pressing issue at hand with the app clones and ‘Uber for X’ models is that they lure businesses into a false sense of achievement and have them believe that cloning is a quick and effective shortcut to their goals. An app, at the end of the day, is a business and by itself  just a facade to the gruelling work that an entrepreneur has to put in, to make the shiny object succeed in ringing the cash counters.

A cloned app is often a random interception in the journey of the original innovator’s attempts to provide value which when ripped off, ends up being an immaculately polished chaff, miserably lacking in the substance ; the value that the app stands for.

If you are inspired by Uber, go build something like it or at the least, understand the machinations behind a business like Uber that makes it a success, before deciding that a clone will do it for you.


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