Tuesday, April 8, 2008

re: HuddleChat

37Signals CEO Jason Fried's response to HuddleChat:

"We're flattered Google thinks Campfire is a great product.  We're just disappointed that they stooped so low to basically copy it feature for feature, layout for layout. We thought that would be beneath Google, but maybe its time to reevaluate what they stand for."

"Oh shit.  Google's giving something better away for free."

Copying Campfire "feature for feature, layout for layout" is about as complicated as copying a single text field, a single button, and big viewing area - it's not exactly patentable rocket science here.  Sorry, Jason, but there are good reasons most web companies don't charge for these insanely simple apps, and one of those is how easy it is to replace them.  

Lest you misunderstand, let me go on record as saying that, for the most part, I love 37Signals.  I love the simplicity of their applications and the perspective they bring to the web community on their blog.  I even think they have a right to be upset - if I sold burritos and someone opened a burrito shop next door that sold bigger burritos I'd be mad too.  But that's not unethical; that's competition.  When you boil a problem down to the basics and provide a very basic solution, it's pretty hard to compete without copying, at least in part.  Since problem boiling is 37Signals' bread and butter, they should be used to this by now.

What makes this response a little...annoying...is that Jason and everyone at 37Signals are usually very forthright and very reasonable.  They're a little arrogant and sometimes silly, but this sort of smug posturing just seems out of character.

If HuddleChat manages to take any large set of users away from Campfire, it will only be because 37Signals failed to incorporate enough of the features their users requested and failed to make the application free, and that's not stealing - that's called innovation.

Apparently Jason's not the only one at 37Signals to get a little upset about HuddleChat.

Update:  Google killed HuddleChat last night, fearing the ill will of the development community.  I guess competing with 37S wasn't on their radar after all.


justin.reidy said...

Long time no chat. Hope all is well.

In response to your post, I think the larger concern here is not competition, but rather, the nature of competition in the web app space. Regardless of what one makes of the ideological side of 37signals, one has to respect that they have an actual working business model: build web applications that people need,and offer a very fair tiered pricing system. If competitors came along and offered similar apps/tools that provided greater functionality at lower cost, that would be a good thing: market competition driving innovation and aiding the consumer, etc etc.

The problem is that rivals aren't working on the same premise of having a working business model: rather, they're generating obscene amounts of money via VC funding, then offering new applications for free on the usually-unrealistic hope of making money off advertising. Or in this case, you've got Google, a massive organization of incredibly talented developers who, oh yeah, have 20% paid time to use Google resources to build whatever the hell web application they want. To me, this situation isn't a matter of market competition, it's Walmart coming in to town and killing off all the mom-and-pop stores.

I think the days of the developer working weekends to put out the next great app are pretty much over: with the complexities of coding as they are now (requiring server AND front end OOP), along with the need to create a truly different and relatively complex app just to survive, you'll need teams of three or more to get something off the ground. And eventually, I have to assume that people will start realizing the "advertising business model" is only slightly more sound than the IPO model back in the late 90s...

RJ said...

Hi Justin! Good to hear from you man.

I largely agree with what you're saying - it's unfair for Google to move in and steal your application.

The point I'm trying to make is that it's pretty tough to make a good multi-user chat room and not copy Campfire. That's what you get for keeping it simple - an interface it's impossible not to copy.

I also don't think it's quite fair to talk about this driving users away from Campfire. Campfire's really selling point is integration with Basecamp. Other than that it's just a good multi-user chatroom, and that's not something anyone wants to pay for.

Most of web 2.0 is free for the user. I understand your point about the VC's and 37s has certainly been harping on that on their blog a lot lately, but that's all rather irrelevant to the end user. I'm sorry 37s, but there are a few wal-marts in town, and you're going to have to figure out how to stay attractive despite them. Integration with basecamp is Campfire's huge selling point, and as it's something Google never would've done, I don't see what the big deal is.

Anyway, this is all rather moot since HuddleChat is dead. Regardless of what I might think about this particular app, it's nice to see that Google doesn't WANT to be the Starbucks or WalMart of the web.

justin.reidy said...

I hear what you're saying, and completely agree that Campfire is really not that useful without integration with Basecamp. In fact, I'd wager a guess that the reason MOST web 2.0 apps are free is that no one would use them if they charged even a cheap subscription fee.

That said, while tools like GAE make my barrier to entry much lower (in terms of contributing/selling a new web app), it's also clear that the current market demands a lot more work to differentiate oneself to actually make a profit (against competitors who can rely on VC).