Posted by David Price 17 April 2014
App cloning: the mobile software industry’s hidden shame
One of the great things about the mobile era is that making software, and getting software to your customers, has never been easier. There are hordes of coders out there that can build you an app and get it on the app stores in a matter of weeks. This is a great thing. But it is also a terrible thing.
You see, part of that last paragraph is wrong. Yes, many of the mechanical processes involved in building an app are far more efficient than ever before, and digital downloads have cut out numerous middlemen and sped up the journey to market. But the actual creative process - the part where you have an original idea, decide to risk your time and money making it a reality, test it, hone it and give up great chunks of your life and sanity to bring it to fruition - is basically the same as ever: it's brutal.
This means that, for the true pioneers, the people who commit to making software that moves things forward, the journey from raw idea to commercial return isn't that much faster than it used to be. The ones who benefit are the scumbags: the clone builders. Cloning is our boom industry.
A classic case study can be seen in the rather wonderful iPhone puzzle game Threes, which was in development for 423 days and was then cloned in 21. (The first imitator was a game called 1024, and then there was 2048; and then there was a flood of games that didn't even bother to come up with their own name.)
Those of us in more routine employment can only imagine the developers' emotions, watching their work being ripped off after more than a year of unrewarded labour, but you can get an idea from their blog post about the experience: The Rip-offs & Making Our Original Game. It's a fascinating read, and provides a glimpse of the absurd perfectionism and relentless toil that leads to a great app. It also offers some clues about how the cloners manage to do things so much more quickly - they just didn't do any of the hard bits.
Fortunately, Threes doesn’t seem to have suffered too badly from the flood of lookalikes, even though the devs have suffered the indignity of being accused in some benighted quarters of ripping off 2048, and remains fairly highly placed in Apple’s paid-apps chart.
It probably hasn't made as much money as it deserves to, or would have made if the App Store curators rejected clones (both Apple and Google tend to adopt a fairly hands-off approach on cloning, only rejecting apps that are explicitly trading off other apps' names or lifting their cosmetic assets). But we can at least hope - and the optimistic if bittersweet tone of the blog post supports this - that the devs' experience has been positive, overall; and that the next time they have a brilliant idea they’ll try to make it happen. (The logical thing, of course, would be to tell mobile gamers to stuff it and not put yourself through it all again.)
Yet for every success story, there must be dozens of failures that we never hear about. These are the app developers who choose to build something original and never even get as far as being cloned, because the app store charts are stuffed with ripoffs of Threes, or Flappy Bird, or Bejeweled, or Temple Run. And those are the devs who must then be tempted to join the ranks of the cloners-for-hire, a world explored in a fascinating Eurogamer article.
There was a time when every startup headed to iOS or Android, and mobile software seemed to have limitless potential. Instead we face a future of ripoffs and copycats. But you can make a difference! Support original software, never buy ripoff apps, and maybe we can end the reign of the clones.