Whenever a new technology is launched, there is (almost everytime) a clear inventor of it, the one who first had the idea in his/her mind and was able to make it something real. As soon as others discover and study this technology, they take the original idea and use it for their own purposes, with or without improving it. Sometimes those second comers add the same feature into their own feature list, in a way that can be called “me too ”. Is there any value in a “me too” situation?
First of all, the inventor deserves one thing: credit for the invention. There is an ocean of difference between having the genius to create a new technology, or taking it once it has been announced and use it. In a competing market, taking a good idea from a competitor and using it in a different product is not a crime. The inventor usually protects his idea with a patent, and lately we are seeing thousands of patents being filed in order to protect anything. In a way, especially in the software space, this is becoming too much, and a new comer has his hard times trying to create something new and at the same time be sure he’s not violating any existing patent.
But at the same time, I would say regardless the presence of a patent, credit should be given to the inventor. Too many times I see companies brutally copying others’ ideas, never recognizing the credit when due, and gain profits out of this mis-behaviour. Sure, the patent holder can sue the competitors, but sometimes those have an helping hand from a broken patent system: lawsuits take too much time, and while the suit is not completed, they can earn revenues using someone else’s ideas. Competition is tough in these days, but thid doesn’t mean it should be unfair.
The inventor is still the tech leader?
From the first paragraph, you would think I’m totally with the patent holder. Yes and No. Patents can sometimes be too restrictive, and block or slow down innovation. They are a good way to protect the original idea, and to give credit to its inventor, but when they become a weapon things start to become ugly. There are around many who took an idea from someone else, they improved it, up to the point they released an even better solution. Being the one who introduced a new idea doesn’t always mean your “version” of the idea is still the best.
I’m talking about the IT industry, it’s what I know best, but the same thoughts can be applied to many different markets. As I explain in the introduction, when a new competitor enters the market, its solution has a feature set that can be compared to the one of an existing player. Completely ground-breaking technologies that didn’t exist in the past are really rare, almost all new technologies can be compared to something already existing.
One of the easiest way to compare two competing solutions, is via a feature list. In this situation, you are presented with usually a 3 columns table, with the first one being the list of features, and the second and third have signs in it when one of the two competitors have that feature. At first sight, it seems a great way to compare the two solutions. But depending on who compiled the list, and what features are listed, the final result almost everytime is a marketing trick created but one of the two competitors, to make its product appear better than the other. And when a new-comer has the same feature of the inventor, here is where the original title comes in. If you are the new-comer, the “me too” is used by the leader to dimish the value of the original idea: “look, it’s not a distinguishing feature, we have it too”. Problem is, this is a “me too” situation:
You see the trick I did? There is no way you can deny the latter is a car too, but I dare you saying the best one is not the Ferrari. (Ok, unless your parameter is its price).
As a customer, be careful about the new comers (oh, did I say by the way they can be the incumbents because a new technology has been invented by a startup?). They often use the “me too” trick to diminish the value of their competitors, they wrote huge “technical” papers (they are not at all technical) to explain why the leader has no value left in its solution, they spread FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt), they use usually huge budgets on marketing to protect themselves or put competitors in the shade.
Degrees of quality…
I heard a couple of times a vendor saying “we are late at the party on that feature, it’s a “me too” feature, so there is no value in promoting it”. I beg to disagree, and I invite you vendor to promote it anyway. Why? Because there are different degrees of quality on how a feature can be implemented, and so being the late comer doesn’t mean your feature is worse than the original one.
Again, my experience is about IT industry, and most of all Virtualization, but I have nonetheless a more general example for you. Think about ABS (Anti-lock Braking System). It was developed among others by Bosch during the ‘70s, and the first commercial car having it was a Mercedes (to be honest, the first idea was developed in 1929 and applied to airplanes). I’m old enough to remember my first car when I was 18, it had ABS as an optional feature, and a really expensive one. After more than 20 years, all cars have ABS, it’s not even more an optional in many Countries but a mandatory equipment; can we say there is no value left in the ABS? All ABS systems are the same, because they have become “commodity” (see, not only IT can use that term!)? Mercedes cars have still the best ABS around? Maybe, but maybe that Ferrari I pictured before has an even better braking system.
Why this is possible? Because the original idea was improved over the years, but also because other competitors developed on top of the original idea, added their own improvements to it, so after all these years there are many different solutions around, and even if they are all comparable because they all belong to the original ABS idea, they all differ at the same time in terms of qualities, capabilities, price, and so on.
In the IT industry, being the one who had the original idea does not automatically means you are still the best solution after some time; new competitors can always take your idea (respecting patents and giving credit as I said), improve it, and at the end having a better product. Even when a solution relies on public APIs and frameworks, the difference of quality two solutions can have is huge, regardless the fact they both work using common libraries.
As a customer, always beware of marketing claims without proper validation. Second comers always spread FUD against the tech leader, even when the tech leader is a small company and the late comer is a giant in the industry. If you see the “me too” feature listed, ask for details: how it works, how it can be compared to the other ones, pros and cons. If they show you researches, ask if it was paid by the vendor itself. Look for independent reviews, or even better ask for a trial: if a vendor really believes in the value of its solution, it will have no problem to let you test it. If it’s reluctant, turn your back and look somewhere else.
On the other side, as a vendor, being the inventor doesn’t mean you are the leader after some time. It’s great and something to be proud of when you can claim “we invented it”, but in a fast changing landscape like IT, you always have to innovate and improve your technology, otherwise your invention will be good only for history books, and at some point you will have to face a “me too” coming from someone else.