Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Another day, another moment to be in awe of Facebook's ruthless genius. 

Facebook on Monday announced a way for people to use its Messenger texting app for group video calls. You may recognize this feature from the many other digital hangouts for multiparty web video calls, like Microsoft Corp.'s Skype and Facebook's own WhatsApp.  

As I look back at Facebook's business in 2016, two trends stand out: its fantastically amazing financial performance and its fantastically amazing copying of rivals.

Facebook spent much of this year cloning aspects of Snapchat, the latest up-and-comer to try to poach users and ad money from Facebook. Its Instagram photo-and-videos app this summer added the ability for users to create a daily digital diary made up of photos and videos, along with virtual annotations -- just as they can in Snapchat.

Money Machine
In a sign of Facebook's remarkable 2016, the company's revenue growth rate re-accelerated this year after it had peaked in 2014
Source: Bloomberg

Copying is pointless, of course, unless it works. Facebook had tried before to copy elements of Snapchat and flopped. But this time there is some early evidence that Facebook's Snapchat cloning effort has caught on. Facebook said last month that Instagram's Snapchat-like "Stories" had more than 100 million daily active users -- closing in on Snapchat's reported 150 million daily users. Snapchat recently added some features that were unique to Instagram Stories. In other words, the clone is forcing the original to do some copying of its own. 

And Facebook's year of cloning didn't stop at Snapchat and video calling. Facebook this year also followed the lead of apps like Meerkat and Periscope from Twitter Inc. in allowing anyone to broadcast live videos in the middle of an amazing sushi meal or breaking up laughing at a Star Wars toy mask. Mark Zuckerberg now has become the world's biggest proponent of live videos by the masses and has even been pitching them in television commercials.

Close to the Real Thing
Just months after Facebook's Instagram copied popular features of Snapchat, the Instagram version was approaching Snapchat's user numbers.
Source: Bloomberg reporting (Snapchat) and Facebook disclosures (Instagram Stories)
Note: Facebook disclosed daily users for Instagram stories in November. Snapchat's daily user metric was first disclosed in June.

Facebook's live video initiative has usurped Periscope, forced Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube to play catch up and helped kill live streaming at Meerkat. Facebook also created a messaging service for office workers that looks and feels much like Silicon Valley's darling work app Slack. Heck, even Messenger itself and its nascent business model are borrowed from Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s hugely popular WeChat and other messaging apps in Asia. 

Borrowing product ideas may not be the whiz-bang innovation that gets people excited about flying cars, but smart copying is a way of life in the technology industry. It doesn't matter who came up with the idea first. If people spend a bit less time on Snapchat or Skype in favor of Facebook's cloned versions, then that simply feeds into the company's engine that churns ad dollars from the remarkable 50 minutes a day users spend on average in Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.

Zuckerberg and Facebook don't get enough credit for their cold-eyed business genius -- and the company's clever cloning is an important aspect of that genius. All hail the copycat king. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. FaceTime is popular on Apple smartphones and other devices, although FaceTime doesn't permit video calls with multiple people. 

  2. I remain unsure whether mass numbers of people will want to broadcast videos of themselves as they perform daily activities or whether their peers will be interested enough to tune in. 

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net