Abstraction and The Death of Innovative Products

Building a new app or product these days is considerably easier than it was just 10 years ago. Middleware, open source and forks are abound. But today, most developers, designers and entrepreneurs wouldn’t dream of building a new library, server foundation or core technology to create their next upcoming product.

“ESPN […] had written their own ad servers because they didn’t have off-the-shelf solutions when they first started their website back in the late 1990s.” -Andrew Chen

Building on the backs of giants - well established platforms, libraries and middleware - has a few big disadvantages however. The over-use of such building blocks is why I think we’re seeing so many ‘me too’ products. Single feature-products or amalgamations of services tied together to create something new, but not necessarily innovative or worse, lacking any real value. Clones of clones.

I first noticed this trend heavily back when I worked in the games industry. The middleware (game engine) of choice for so many AAA games was and is the Unreal Engine. It powers everything from Gears of War, Mass Effect and Transformers. Big titles, but if you know anything about those games, somewhat similar in core gameplay mechanics and systems. I watched first hand as middleware destroyed the unique qualities of many games. Middleware made it far too easy to do the status quo or follow in others footsteps. I would often hear “but that’s how Unreal does it…”. You’re not on a slowly sinking ship.

When you have to build foundational systems that are core to your offering you learn a lot because you’ll be making hundreds of small decisions that ultimately craft something unique. You gain expert domain knowledge (which becomes a valuable asset) and you have the opportunity to build something no one has seen or experienced before. This can be a key way to differentiate your product from others.

Contrast that with building on top of a laundry list of services, platforms or stacks. You’re now just putting your ‘twist’ on things - not building a game changer.

Companies and entrepreneurs that are succeeding at building must have products are doing the hard work of building new systems, foundations and processes. They are building real value and disrupting industries - things which are hard to replicate.

With the rate at which software and digital products can now be cloned, it’s also harder than ever to have a truly defensible product or IP. Without being the first entry into a market or having a huge head start on network effects you’re likely dead in the water.

Am I suggesting you should build everything from the metal up? Of course not. But if you’re not building unique technology for the core value of your venture don’t be surprised if you’re cloned by someone with deeper pockets. Use middleware and other off the shelf solutions to quickly test and validate your ideas. Continue to use it to fill rote gaps. Then focus on the core of what makes your product or venture unique and build real value.