With politics entering the nasty season, it's refreshing to hear the civility and sportsmanship of our local entrepreneurs. Especially when they face...
With politics entering the nasty season, it’s refreshing to hear the civility and sportsmanship of our local entrepreneurs.
Especially when they face intense new competition from better-financed rivals.
That’s what happened recently to three Seattle startups after they built cool new technologies and companies that seem like natural acquisition targets.
Yet they all took it in stride when tech giants introduced what seemed like copycat products, instead of buying or licensing what the little guys created.
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The latest example is the “Genius” music discovery feature that Apple added to iTunes last week. Genius analyzes what users are listening to and suggests similar music that they might like, in a new sidebar to the right of the iTunes software jukebox.
Sound familiar? It’s just like the add-on music-discovery sidebar for iTunes that Seattle’s iLike launched two years ago.
Apple knows all about iLike, and iLike knew the Genius feature was coming.
But instead of attacking its new opponent, iLike welcomed the competition. The founders, twin brothers Hadi and Ali Partovi, respect the other player and have confidence iLike will be fine.
“I don’t think theirs reduces the value of ours,” Ali Partovi said.
“When I visit there [Apple offices], I see that they have our sidebar on the desktops,” he said. “Frankly it’s flattering, I guess — it’s a company I’ve looked up to since I was a little kid.”
Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Partovis have other reasons to be confident. More than 30 million people have registered to use iLike, largely through social networks such as Facebook, where the company’s software really took off.
They’ve also moved the business beyond music-sale royalties. They added services for musicians and ticket sellers, including promotions such as this week’s online premier of a Thievery Corporation album.
With MySpace rolling out similar services and selling songs through a partnership with Amazon.com‘s music store, perhaps the genius move for Apple would have been to acquire iLike and its established footprint on other social networks.
Apple isn’t the only bigfoot.
Last week Microsoft unveiled a service called Video Messages that’s quite similar to the service offered by Eyejot, a video-messaging company started in 2006.
Eyejot co-founder David Geller also saw the similarity, but he doesn’t seem angry.
“I think it’s great that they’re launching it,” he said. “It’s going to spur the market for video mail; it’s going to introduce more people that didn’t know anything about it to what can be done with their computers and Webcams.”
Geller said his software has more features — it’s aimed at businesses that want to do things like attach documents — versus Microsoft’s consumer service.
“The product looks and behaves sufficiently different from ours that, no, we certainly don’t think they’re mimicking anything we’re doing.”
Geller said “people always worry about Microsoft getting into their market” but he’s seen a lot of small companies succeed in the giant’s shadow. (Times really have changed.)
“In this case it’s a good thing they’re doing it. They’re not really focusing on the same market as we are, which is the business user,” he said.
Seattle-based ActiveWords also saw Microsoft introduce a product echoing its own, when the Office Labs team released “Speed Launch” last month.
ActiveWords spent nine years developing software that lets users add single-word commands to their systems, so you can type in a keyword such as “ferry” to launch a browser and pull up schedules.
Co-founder Buzz Bruggeman moved from Florida to Seattle, in part, to be closer to the action around Microsoft, a company he hoped would be interested in the technology.
Speed Launch, which Microsoft began giving away Aug. 11, is the first release from a new “prototype” program that lets employees develop things in their spare time, similar to the way Google lets employees spend 20 percent of their time on special projects.
Microsoft calls it an “application launcher that extends the functionality and usability of Microsoft Windows. With Speed Launch, users can select their own words to open frequently used Web sites, documents, and applications.”
At least Microsoft had the courtesy to call ActiveWords before the release, and ask if they had any problems with Speed Launch.
Bruggeman and ActiveWords President Peter Weldon said it’s fine, in part because they have a full-blown product that makes Windows easier to use, while Speed Launch is only a downloadable widget.
“They have not done anything functionality wise that really competes with the market,” Weldon said, even though “some narrow range of functionality is similar.”
ActiveWords isn’t planning a patent fight — that’s a game for other, bigger companies, Weldon said. At small software companies, “their intellectual property portfolio as a practical matter is really only there so it’s a more attractive acquisition for a bigger company that will protect the property,” he explained.
Bruggeman is staying positive. He said Microsoft’s entrance “validates what we’ve done.”
“We’re in somebody’s path,” he said. “At some point in time it’s going to make economic sense for them to team up with us in some way.”
I don’t think he’s just putting lipstick on a pig.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.