Anybody with an interest in how communities react to forking and clones of a project should watch this thread on the del.icio.us discuss mailing list. The background is this: a programmer named Steve Mallet essentially cloned Joshua Schachter’s del.icio.us service, down even to the URI level (his service is called del.irio.us). The passion on both sides of the argument has been illustrative of some of the emotions invested in both the del.icio.us application itself as well open source. The main issues are:
1. Open Source: Part of the reasoning for creating del.irio.us, according to Mallet, was the need for an open source version of the code that runs del.icio.us. To this issue, I’d ask only this: what is the problem that’s being solved by open source here? Development speed and contributions is the most likely answer, and it’s certainly possible that del.irio.us will evolve more quickly than del.icio.us. That said, I’m not sure that’s a given, because of how centrally delivered services operate (yes, I’m aware that del.irio.us can be run locally). As I’ve written many times, open source is a tremendously powerful way to develop software and many if not most projects can benefit from it, but it is most definitely not a development panacea. Also, how long will this remain a competitive differentiator?
2. Social Software: It’s interesting to me that the code behind social-software can come to be as beloved as the community that it supports; as David Smith notes, Shirky has written of this before, but Smith says it best I think:
It’s hardly surprising that some of us who have come to use del.icio.us a great deal might feel just a little affronted, on Joshua’s behalf more than anything else, at such a naked act of appropriation.
Net net, if you were think that community members don’t care too much about the bits, think again. What’s more, potential users or partners of del.irio.us may have to contend with an irritated (and numerically larger) population of del.icio.us users in the future.
3. Degrees of Cloning: A point raised by many in this debate has been the down to the minutiae level of replication in Mallet’s application. This implies an awareness – a healthy awareness, IMO – that some replication can be a very welcome thing, and that cloning is not a binary, black/white issue. Instead it’s the degree to which Mallet cloned del.icio.us that has irked many.
4. Community Division: The most worrisome concern for most posters however is not the technical replication, but rather the potential fracturing of the current user base that could occur if del.irio.us poaches some current del.icio.us users. While this is a legitimate concern, I still believe that playing catchup from a user contributed data perspective is far more challenging than any technical arms race. As a result, it’s my belief that del.icio.us has a very healthy lead on services that clone its functionality; at least until one of them produces a solution that’s head and shoulders better than del.icio.us, which clearly isn’t the case at the moment.
5. Cloning as a Necessity?: One of the interesting defenses Mallet presented for his actions was the need to preserve some semblance of a user experience from del.icio.us to del.irio.us. Here’s what he says:
the interface is a rip off: I suck at CSS & this is the basic layout
that came with the software that runs de.lirio.us. I’m totally open to
changing it up. I do want to keep the same UI though. No sense
screwing up what people know how to do now.
Personally, it’s my opinion that he’s overemphasizing the UI issues (it’s just not that complicated) for the purposes of defense, but I think the point in general is a legitimate one. One would have a difficult time, for example, delivering a completely unique word processor because Microsoft Word has become the standard set of expecations. But what constitues necessary-for-users feature replication, and what is simply gratuitous?
All in all, I think this example highlights the fact that there are right and wrong ways to clone applications or services; or maybe that’s wrong – there are righter and wronger ways if not an absolute black/white determination. In this case, I think the degree to which del.irio.us flatly copied much of the del.icio.us design is not entirely appropriate, but at least in the short term I don’t expect it to make much difference. Nonetheless, for any open source or commercial vendors out there contemplating similar replication I’d urge you to take a look at the concerns mentioned by del.icio.us fans. Some might have been avoided with a bit of community involvement.