Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint what’s a clone, what’s iterative and what’s just inspiration. This is but one example. Greg Cohn, the CEO of Burner, an iPhone application offering disposable phone numbers that raised seed funding from 500 Startups and other angels this fall, is calling out a competitor’s app as a clone. The app in question is Hushed, which first debuted on Android before arriving in the App Store this past week. Hushed offers a similar feature set and pricing model to Burner, but Cohn thinks some things were just a little too familiar.
We covered the Hushed launch, thinking it would be a handy alternative to Burner for those on Android where Burner was not yet available. But at the time, Cohn left an angry note in the comments section, calling out Hushed as “an obvious clone.” Specifically, he said:
“While we welcome interesting competition to what we think is a very exciting market, it’s disappointing to see such an obvious clone. I mean, if you’re going to take a top-selling iOS app and race to make the android version of it (we’ve recently announced ours), at least take the trouble to change the color scheme and price points.”
Though Cohn and team may feel slighted, if you ask the creators of Hushed (as we did), they’ll tell you that their app is “quite different,” and that the perceived similarities between the two have more to do with the similarities between all communications apps, as well as the standard legalese used in terms of service and the like.
In his comment on TechCrunch, Cohn seemed to take issue with the fact that not only did Hushed iterate on Burner’s original idea, it did so using the same color scheme and pricing model. The Hushed app shows dollar amounts for purchases, while Burner uses a credit system, but when you strip that away, costs are the same, he claims.
That’s not exactly true, though. While three credits on Burner ($1.99) buys you the same number of minutes (20) and texts (60) as on Hushed for the same period of time (seven days), other packages vary. For example, $4.99 on Burner will get you 30 days/90 minutes/270 texts or 60 days/75 minutes/225 texts. Hushed charges $5.99 for 30 days/50 minutes/150 texts, then goes up to $9.99 for its 90-day plan. You could also argue that even if dollar amounts were identical across the board, seeing prices instead of only credit bundles is a differentiator in users’ eyes.
Copying or Inspiration?
So where does one draw the line between what’s just another competitor in your space and one that’s outright “copying you?” That’s the bigger question here. And when you think you have been “cloned,” is calling out your rival publicly the best way to deal with it? Should you fire off angry comments, take to Twitter, or just quietly hit up your lawyers to make your case?
We asked Cohn why he felt strongly enough to comment about the fact that there’s now another app going after this same market. He clarified that the case with Hushed is not just about fighting off the competition. Instead, he clearly feels this app in particular has crossed a line. “It’s validating to see others working in the same problem space, and as an entrepreneur I certainly appreciate competition – particularly the kind of competition that brings something new or innovative to the table,” he tells us.
“Let’s just say that I and the team that’s been working on Burner for the past year felt the Hushed experience was awfully familiar in a bunch of specific ways, and, while they made a few different product choices than we did, offered limited value add,” he tells us.
The “different product choices” he’s referring to seemingly include Hushed’s more international focus. It’s something that Hushed would also argue is a differentiator. The Hushed app is built on top of Twilio’s SDK, which limits its SMS support but provides it with the ability to create the disposable numbers on the fly. With Twilio’s SDK, there are only three types of numbers that send and receive SMSes: the U.S., Canada and the U.K. So when Hushed advertises that it works in 40 countries worldwide, it’s only referring to calls. Burner, instead, has chosen to limit itself to markets where its numbers look and act like “real” mobile phone numbers – that is, they respect the specific formatting and prefixing that some countries require, and they support SMS.
Burner has some ideas of how it will address the international market, says Cohn. “When we do it, we will do it right,” he says. But speaking of Hushed’s methods, he adds, “this is not the kind of experience I would personally want to have when trying to use a virtual number for travel, dating, selling something, etc., and certainly not one we’d consider launching to our users.”
That’s maybe a difference in opinion about how such an experience should work, ideally, but the flip side of this argument is that Hushed is just opportunistic by going after a hole left open in the market.
And another thing: when developers accuse others of “cloning” their apps, there’s also a tendency to think that the resulting creation may include some copied underlying code. On this specific point, Cohn has no proof. “We don’t have any knowledge of this,” he states.
That being said, there are (or were, before an update) several places in the Hushed app and web presences – which arrived after Burner did – where text is either duplicated word for word, or only slightly reworded. Some of the screenshots below are from Hushed’s earlier versions – for example, the Terms of Service was duplicated in version 1.0.4, but in the current version (1.1.1) it’s now truncated. Other screenshots show the borrowed “look and feel” (color schemes, user interface flow, etc.) rather than exact matches. But these screens below are specifically what Cohn takes issue with.
With regards to the company’s plans to litigate, Cohn says, “I can’t comment publicly on our legal strategy, but as I’m sure you can imagine, we’re monitoring this closely.”
“We were aware that the Burner CEO left a comment on the initial TechCrunch article calling us a clone and also bashed Hushed on Twitter, but we have refrained from any such discussion, as we want to succeed on the product and marketing and not on ranting. Burner does not appear to understand the limits of its intellectual property rights,” Shimoon says.
“This whole discussion is very bewildering to us as Burner itself was not the first one with the idea of a temporary phone number that can be discarded after use. Even if they were the first one with the idea, it does not appear that they obtained any intellectual property protection for it,” he adds.
The company responded to the questions about color choice by saying that they didn’t want to use “cool” colors like blue, green or silver, and didn’t want to use purple since Viber does so, and already has some 100 million+ users.
“We chose a reddish orange because the combination of colors connotes heat, romance, passion and lust,” says Hushed creator Justin Shimoon. “Clearly this app is attractive to anyone who wishes to hide their identity, or create multiple identities.” He also argues that there are quite a few apps in the communications space, and any color chosen would have some similarity to an existing competitor – YOOTok is red, Text+ is green, Ghost Phone is pink, Skype is turquoise. And though he neglected to mention it, Tango, which also just hit 100 million downloads, is orange, too.
Shimoon goes on to respond to all the complaints from Burner in painstaking detail, but we can summarize as follows:
- Burner does not have intellectual property rights in this area.
- Hushed can use the phone’s Wi-Fi or cellular connection. (Burner uses cell phone minutes).
- Burner itself is not the first company with the idea of a temporary phone number (see also RingShuffle, e.g.)
He also responded with some screenshots of his own:
The word “clone” is used a lot in the tech industry, and those accused of it unfairly tend to bristle at the practice, defending their startup’s differentiating features. A lot of the Samwer companies are referred to as “clones,” for instance, though they are really just taking proven business models to new markets. Samsung is regularly accused of “cloning” Apple, too. And the Android marketplace (Google Play) in particular struggles with fighting off clone apps, because it doesn’t have an app store review process to keep them out initially. Curebits and 37Signals have also gotten into it before (but in that case copyright infringement was involved). Zynga has copied games and accused others of copying theirs. Even Stripe just this past week accused PayPal of cloning API docs.
What all these cases seem to show, though, is that we’ve gotten too casual with the use of the word “clone.” Unless you can prove that the underlying ones and zeroes have been cut and pasted, or something else you have IP to has been ripped off, you can claim “copycat” and “unethical,” perhaps, but you might want to stop short of saying “clone.”
Altruistic might be the better word.