On being flattered and offended

We’re very proud of our iPhone apps for travellers heading to Southeast Asia. They’re the product of a collaboration between ourselves and South African development team Bytesizecreations.

We like to describe our situation as being two guys in tin sheds 10,000km apart. Between our expertise in providing travel intelligence and their’s in iPhone programming and design, we produce iPhone applications that are not only particularly useful, but that also look great and are intuitive to use.

As anyone involved in building travel apps knows, organising large volumes of information in a easy to use fashion isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t cheap.

That’s not stopping people from making quality travel apps though. For example mTrip, Cool Places Guides and NFT have all managed to put together quality apps that each take a different and innovative approach to travel apps.

In our case we went for a unique design and, while it’s not perfect, we thought it was a very good first attempt.

So imagine my dismay when I received a press release last week, from a Singaporean company, pushing their first app — one that blatantly copied our design.

The two main navigation screens

The two main navigation screens

They say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and to a point I’d agree, but pass a point and it becomes offensive.

While this is annoying on many levels, what is most annoying perhaps is that we offered the CEO advice regarding iPhone apps in the past, yet the first we heard that they’d decided to borrow heavily from our design was when the press release hit my inbox.

Comparing two "general info" pages

Comparing two "general info" pages

Early this year, they approached our developer directly, their developer asking by email “I am interested in making an iPhone application just like Travelfish iphone app.

In another email to our developer they said “…I require the following basic features, almost same as travelfish app…” (their typo)

Comparing "location" pages

Comparing "location" pages

They also illustrated a base lack of knowledge in how to build a travel app:
“Also tell me which offline map library would you use and which map source will you use.(e.g OSM with route-me).”

Interestingly the one section of the app they didn’t copy at all was the sideways “swish” navigation that we use. I assume because it was beyond the technical ability of their “developers”.

In another remarkable coincidence, they locked the app into horizontal display only — just like we did.

Comparing the navigation styles - they couldn't master the more technically challenging swish style we use

Comparing the navigation styles - they couldn't master the more technically challenging swish style we use

Aside from the copying issues, there are problems with the app. It’s crashed at least a dozen times just in the time it has taken me to make the screenshots above — I’d have panned it in iTunes, but, to be fair, I’m a bit biased.

At the end of the day, they’re charging a premium price for an extremely buggy travel app that has, lets be polite here, borrowed heavily from a competitor’s design.

Had the app looked different I’d have just ignored it as another mediocre attempt at travel app-building. But it doesn’t look different.

Comparing the two accommodation styles

Comparing the two accommodation styles

To quote a recent story in Tech Crunch:
“Here’s a simple test: if you have to copy features from a competitor, you’re not the best. That’s not to say the best don’t copy. Of course they do. But rarely does a startup get to be the best by copying — they do it to stay the best, and because they can (sad, perhaps, but true — and it only works if mixed with even more original innovation; see, again: Facebook).

The features that make a startup the best can’t be copied because they’re not actually features, they only appear to be to competitors. Instead, these “features” are a deeply woven fundamental that is vital to the fabric of the startup that came up with it. To put it another way: these “features” are often something that was dreamed up from the inception of a product, not something that was tacked-on (as it would be by the copying party).”

This Singaporean company has taken our design, made it worse and now intends to attempt to compete with Sutro Media. While I’m not a great fan of Sutro’s design and think their commission structure is somewhat unfair to content creators, at least they come up with their own designs and have built up what I assume to be a successful business from the ground up. Power to them and I wish them all the best.

To travel writers out there looking for an iPhone platform, while the commission structure isn’t great, Sutro Media are the people you should be talking to.

Businesses that selfishly rip off designs, and obviously struggle for an original thought should not be trusted with your hard work.

On the subject of content, don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that our current Singapore content is mediocre at best. That’s why we’ve got a writer working on a comprehensive update as I type. When, in about a month, that update is complete, we’ll release our Singapore app and we’ll see which the app-buying public prefers.

This isn’t about content. It’s about integrity and innovation. I’m happy to compete with anyone on a content basis with our iPhone apps — I just prefer it if I’m not competing with a shadow of myself.

Pull the app and build something original.