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When it comes to Facebook’s product plans, originality is overrated

clone wars fb copycatsIs Facebook more of a monster than ever?

Last May, hot on the heels of Facebook’s Instagram acquisition, Mark Zuckerberg told Facebook’s investors that mobile was one of the social giant’s top priorities for 2012. Seven months later, Facebook seems to have done its level best to make that a reality, revamping its mobile client, improving its Messenger app, and releasing the likes of Camera and, more recently, Poke.

Yet something feels amiss.

Poke, for all the history “poking” has and the mild derision it has garnered as one of the gently creepy aspects of Facebook, is Facebook’s latest and greatest venture into mobile. All you need to do is write a short message, attach a photo or 10-second video, and send to any of your Friends. Your friends can then view your message, which will self-destruct after a few moments.

All of this sounds fun… save for the fact that Snapchat did it already. The recent sexting dustup notwithstanding, Snapchat saw almost overnight popularity — despite its being released last year — and was all the tech press could talk about for weeks. Facebook saw an opening and made an unabashed clone in twelve days, hoping to cash in on the frenzy. The ploy worked for maybe a second, but reality soon hit hard. Poke plummeted to the 51st spot on the App Store’s top free apps list while Snapchat still sits pretty at number 4. And it now has the ignominious distinction of somewhat indirectly causing Randi Zuckerberg’s privacy woes.

Of course, the copying doesn’t end there. Facebook confused just about everyone by releasing its own photo-sharing app little more than a month after buying Instagram. And while the app is good, it’s not Instagram good, and thus lacks Instagram’s popularity.

And remember when Facebook swallowed up the late Gowalla’s developers, allowing it to take Foursquare on in the growing check-in business?

And while Facebook Messenger appears poised to take on mobile messaging in a way that Apple’s iMessage and even RIM’s BBM simply haven’t scaled to accomplish, messaging is hardly a new paradigm, even if it’s one that desperately needs disruption.

What becomes clear when you start to unpack Facebook’s checkered mobile history is that it has, by and large, failed to innovate in a way that has changed or reinvented already embedded mobile communication. Instead, it has done everything in its power to either copy or absorb the efforts of smaller outfits.

For the tech world, Facebook is starting to resemble little more than a doppleganger or even John Carpenter’s The Thing, attacking its victims and swiftly replacing them, ever on the hunt for its next victim. And we all know how that turned out.

As a giant with aspirations for becoming the de facto internet for most users — be it on phones, tablets, or conventional computers — Facebook is already monstrous. But by assimilating the innovations of other companies, it becomes a monster to be vanquished by both its users and the companies it ravages. If the company wants to save itself from that fate, it better come up with something original. And soon.