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It’s not always about being the first
There’s always room for something better
Conventional wisdom says that there is a strategic advantage in being first to
market with a new product. Sometimes this is true, but often it is the later entrants
to a market who gain a real advantage. Why? Because they do it better. Apple and
Facebook are examples of companies that improved on existing market offerings,
and were hugely successful as a result.
Betamax vs VHS 160
Consider Betamax and VHS. Does anyone now remember Betamax?
Humans beat computers
People’s competitive instinct is now extending to competing against computers. In an
online article on 6 December 2012, 159 James Robertson said that teams recently spent five
weeks designing an artificial intelligence program to compete against humans in Angry
Human intelligence triumphed! Dengji Zhao, playing Angry Birds for the first time, scored
565,000 points – 35,000 more than the leading computer.
Contest organiser, Associate Professor Jochen Renz, head of the Australian National
University’s school of artificial intelligence, believed that computers will become more
sophisticated and successful and that this ‘was probably the last chance for humans to
The VCR was first introduced in the early ‘70s, and had become the largest consumer
electronics product by the early 1980s. Sony introduced its Betamax video system
in 1975, and JVC followed with VHS a year later.
Betamax was originally the industry leader with its compact, reliable and inexpensive
VCR. But it quickly fell behind VHS in sales, and Sony had stopped producing Beta
models by the end of the 1980s. While Betamax was arguably the better format,
VHS had emerged as the victor within a decade.
It is commonly believed that slick marketing made the difference. The truth is
more complex. Sony felt their product was better, overestimated their lead in the
market, and took a very laid back approach to forming partnerships with other
companies. JVC, on the other hand, actively brought as many partners as possible
into the VHS family.
Other key factors included:
VHS recoding length was more attractive for customers – 3-hour tapes
against Betamax 60-minute tapes.
VHS machines were simpler and cheaper to m
A greater choice of rental movies was available on VHS.
The ‘bandwagon’ effect took over – customers preferred to own VHS, the standard
that was most commonly available.
Number cruncher … Dengji Zhao had several strategies to beat the computer. Photo:
240 HOW APPS ARE CHANGING THE WORLD
Sources include http://www.mediacollege.com/video/format/compare/betamax-vhs.html and http://
HOW APPS ARE CHANGING THE WORLD 241
Apple is also an interesting case in point. It is a hugely successful company, and
many people see Apple as a market leader. Steve Chazin, former Apple sales and
marketing executive, argues strongly in his e-book Marketing Apple that one of
Apple’s secrets of success is never being the first to market. As he says:
Apple has never really invented anything new. They didn’t invent
the PC, the MP3 player, downloadable music, and certainly not the
mobile phone. The Mac, iPod, iTunes and iPhone are all successful
because they were late to market and improved on existing designs
Steve claims that what Apple does well is to make complex things easy and
elegant. The iPod is a great example. It doesn’t make music sound better, provide
better battery life, or save the user money. What it offers is a simple and elegant
improvement to MP3 player design.
With the simple step of plugging your iPod into its cradle, your music can be moved
from your computer to your iPod, organised the same way it is on your computer. As
a bonus, your iPod is charged at the same time. It is a simple and elegant solution,
and other MP3 players are still playing catch-up.
So, it’s not always about being first. In fact, there can be distinct advantages in
not being first to market with a new product. There’s always a better way, an
improvement you can make to an existing product.
242 HOW APPS ARE CHANGING THE WORLD
HOW APPS ARE CHANGING THE WORLD 243
A new approach to copycats
Sometimes the distinction between copycats and counterfeits is blurred. When is
something leveraging off, or improving another idea, and when is it dishonestly
piggy-backing on the success of others?
The games Cut the Rope and Candy Master are a case in point. They both feature
round, green monsters in search of sugary snacks. The aim of both games is to
guide the monster along a rope-filled course in order to reach its goal – a piece of
red and cream coloured candy. The main difference is that Chillingo’s Cut the Rope
has been available since 2010, while Curatus Technocorp’s The Candy Monster
launched in 2012.
Companies of all sizes will face others emulating their products. To be
safe, developers should be on their guard and look into copyrighting
images and/or text within their apps. In addition, it’s important to
be equally cautious that your own content isn’t violating another
developer’s trademarks or using unauthorized content.
If you spot an app lifting code or graphics directly from one of your
apps, contact the app store vendor directly to flag the app. Both
Apple’s App Store and Google Play have channels for developers to
report copyright and trademark violations.
Flappy Bird was taken down from both the AppStore and Google Play on 9
February 2014. The enormously popular game was the subject of controversy right
from the start. The developer, Dong Nguyen, blamed the addictive nature of the
game, which he said had become a problem. Other commentators have come up
with more sinister explanations. Some suggest that Flappy Bird was removed due to
a legal challenge from Nintendo over visual similarities to Mario games, although
this allegation has been denied by both Nguyen and Nintendo. Others have noted its
similarity to Piou Piou vs Cactus, released in 2011 by French developer Kek.
It has also been claimed that Nguyen used bots (fake automated accounts that
artificially create downloads/ranks and reviews) to cause its sudden rise in popularity
in January 2014. But, even if this were true, it would only explain the game’s rise,
not its staying power.
The word ‘flappy’ was quickly copied by other developers. In early February a
search for the word ‘flappy’ in the Google Play store returned 250 results.
Both Apple and Google are now cracking down on games with ‘Flappy’ in the
title. According to sources at Apple, this is not just about apps with ‘flappy’ in
the title, but apps that appear to be trying to trick customers into thinking they are
associated with or replacing a popular app. In other words, they are getting tough
with developers who try to leverage off a popular name.
Which leads to the question – what is a legitimate improvement and what is a
dishonest piggy-back? And what can developers do about it?
In an online article on 4 June 2012, How should developers react to copycat apps? 161,
the following suggestions are made:
244 HOW APPS ARE CHANGING THE WORLD
Apple has removed a number of copycat apps from the App Store that closely
mimicked the titles of successful apps – sometimes even being criticised for being
overly proactive in removing apps that are perceived as knock-offs.
Rovio is also facing this problem in China. With 140 million downloads, China is
Rovio’s second largest Angry Birds market – after the US.
HOW APPS ARE CHANGING THE WORLD 245