Cloning the iOS Ecosystem

You can't copy Apple without becoming Apple • May 2 2012

Currently a comment on Hacker News:

Lets say […] you created an exact clone of the iPad and iOS and sold it at the same price but without the 30% ‘apple tax’ on purchases. It seems reasonable to assume that if that were the only differentiating feature you would get more developers (they get to keep more of the money) and so it would get more apps, and the platform would outsell Apple’s iPad with its constraints.

I’m not trying to slam this guy in particular – but this attitude is prevalent in the HN echo chamber and it is tragically flawed in its assumptions.

See, it might seem reasonable to assume that if you invented a product with feature-for-feature parity with, say, the iPad, but sold it for less and/or gave developers a bigger percentage of their app sales, you’d have a runaway success. Nice try, Vulcan Science Academy – we live in the real world where most of the decisions people make about what they’re going to buy are not rationally driven.

Look – you can’t somehow extract the DNA for the iPad from Apple – if you built a company to make this hypothetical iPad-killer that was just like the iPad, you’d be Apple. You can’t make different decisions about how to make the iPad and still end up with the iPad as we know it. To revisit that comment snippet, end users don’t give a shit about constraints – nerds care about those things, and the iPad isn’t for you.

This exact scenario played out on HN when Dustin Curtis released his Svbtle network. Within literally hours, somebody had produced an open-source clone of the Svbtle theme. Great job, developers! You’ve cloned the least important part of the entire enterprise. Svbtle now pushes 120k pageviews per day. Obtvse … doesn’t? The theme – even the functionality of the ‘Svbtle app’, such as it is – is irrelevant.

By all means riff on successful ideas, but make sure you’re riffing on the salient particulars. Go right ahead and re-invent the iOS ecosystem, but know you’re coming at it ass-backwards if you’re trying to keep the feel but change the underlying assumptions. People love iOS because Apple’s made it stupid-easy to frictionlessly slide into their walled garden. Improve that experience and the ‘apple tax’ won’t matter.