Is imitation the new innovation for messaging apps?
On June 2, at WWDC, Apple announced it would take a page from the Snapchat playbook. With iOS 8, iMessage users would be able to send one another self-destructing photos, voice chats, and video messages at lightning speeds. The iMessage update also borrowed from WhatsApp—recently acquired by Facebook—with features like the ability to name and leave group chats. WhatsApp founder Jan Koum commented on the blatant ripoff on Twitter:
very flattering to see Apple "borrow" numerous WhatsApp features into iMessage in iOS 8 #innovation— jan koum (@jankoum) June 2, 2014
But Apple is hardly alone in "borrowing" from another popular messaging platform. The WWDC announcement was part of a recent tidal wave of imitation-as-innovation announcements from major players in the messaging space, all, incidentally, revolving around that plucky little upstart, Snapchat.
The latest instance was Facebook's rollout of instant video messaging on its Messenger app, which would let users send one another 15-minute video clips, recorded in-app. That came just days after Facebook accidentally released its Snapchat clone, Slingshot, ahead of schedule. Then there was Tinder's recent addition of Moments, a Snapchat Stories ripoff that would let users send disappearing photos and doodles to their matches. And all these announcements have come in the less than two weeks since WWDC.
The point is, everybody is copying from everybody else.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that all of these messaging apps are starting to look more and more like one another. Chat apps have become the de rigeur tool for sending text messages in recent years, widely preferable over fee-laden SMS. Images have become one of the main ways we communicate, on our phones as well as online. Snapchat seemed to figure that out before anyone else—that's why it's so popular, and that's why everyone who isn't Snapchat wants to steal their secret sauce.
Having a good messaging app simply isn't enough anymore—remember BlackBerry Messenger? It may have paved the way for everything that's come since, but it's also an afterthought, and that's because of a refusal to iterate and innovate (and maybe, just maybe, steal from someone else). Imitation is a survival strategy among the major messenger apps. It's safer to introduce tried-and-true features (that have been tried by the other guy first) than it is to create a new app of dubious appeal.
Still, not all copycats will take off, as Facebook learned with the debacle that was Poke and Camera. The ripoffs that work are those that tend to introduce a shiny veneer of innovation, just enough to gloss over the blatant theft. For instance, Facebook's soon-to-be Snapchat competitor, Slingshot, has a new hook: Users will have to respond to a message before they can see what's been sent to them. Tinder's photo-sharing feature makes it a more unique player in the dating app market, and will either facilitate friendly back-and-forth or skeevy sexts—we're not sure yet.
Apple's iMessage update, in grabbing a little bit from Column Snapchat and a little from Column WhatsApp, is smartly tightening its grip on its existing users while trying to appeal to the younger Snapchat demographic and the international WhatsAppers who've been missing from their market. Plus, they've all finally realized that ephemerality isn't really what's driving the Snapchat craze, since that ephemerality was mostly a lie, anyway. It's about sending rapid-fire, photo-heavy missives that don't need to be stored in your phone, not because they're incriminating but simply because they're kind of useless.
Ultimately, all of this backdoor thievery is better for consumers. Users who don't like Snapchat's immaturity and relatively limited functionality (I count myself among them) still see the value in it, and are looking for a platform that integrates blink-and-you'll-miss-it photo-sharing with a more mature form of communication. Facebook Messenger or iMessage, with their new, Snapchat-y makeovers, might offer the perfect balance.
Until the next round of "borrowing" propels another app to the top of the heap.
Illustration by Jason Reed