Spotify for Stuffed Animals: When Unoriginal Apps Change the Paint Job

Two pitches from app startups. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I was pegged to write about them, profiling the apps and interviewing their developers. I was on-side until the moment that I actually downloaded the apps—both of which I rage-quit in frustration.

Here, then, is a short rant about what i like to call “inNOvation,” or the increasingly common custom of reinventing the wheel and raising Series A capital for it.

The first iPhone-only app was Toronto-based Cloudit, which enables you to post 90 characters of text and/or a picture or a short video and tag it to your location. You know, like Twitter, except… well, no exceptions, actually. It’s exactly like Twitter, except it’s only available on one device, you’ve never heard of it, none of your friends are using it, and the interface is amateurish.

The “innovation” here is that you access the tweets—er, messages—from a 3D globe, which helps you answer that age-old question: “I wonder what strangers in Burkina Faso were photographing with their iPhones this past summer?” In defense of Cloudit, the app was developed by three recent engineering graduates. Back to the drawing board, fellas.

The second app was Toronto-based Giftagram, which enables you to “send gifts from your iPhone in three easy clicks,” like a fancy French press for 75 not-so-easy dollars. The app kicks off by requesting access to your contacts and your Facebook friends list, which provoked an autonomic “hell to the naw” response from me.

With apologies to David Spade, i did like Giftagram… when it was called Amazon. Why scroll through a limited list of carefully curated partner products, when you can send gifts via the world’s largest online retailer with the benefit of user reviews, transparent shipping costs, gift-wrapping options, and every other feature Amazon has spent the past two decades building?

Giftagram dubs itself “the Uber of gifting.” Uber, you’ll remember, is the “innovation” on taxi services that enables you to use a cell phone instead of a telephone to hail a cab, and to pay via the app instead of via the driver. Oh, and the cars are black. That’s also an innovation. Because usually, they’re not. Alert the media.

The tech industry is rife with a distinct lack of innovation passing itself off as innovation. College Humor put it best with its bang-on “The App App” satire:



There’s still actual innovation to be found if you look hard enough. Instead of Uber, consider Lyft, which does for taxi service what AirBnB did for traditional hotels. Through their iPhone/Android app, Lyft facilitates peer-to-peer ride-sharing. Stuck for a ride? Lyft gives you a Grindr-like view of nearby drivers who are ready and willing to pick you up. (Pro tip: confusing Grindr with Lyft may dramatically change the course of your afternoon.)

Concepts like Lyft take informal aspects of community, formalize them, raise investor funding, and put a price tag on them, all to the tune of some bouncy animated intro video with a ukulele- and finger-snapping backing track. After all, what is 1-800-GOT-JUNK? but a formalization of hiring that shirtless dude down the street to haul away your old couch in his pick-up truck? What is AirBnB, but a formalized “hey man, can i crash on your couch this weekend?”

Fusing technology with community ensures that you’ll never be without a couch to crash on, or a friend who has a car, or a burly dude who’s willing to take your stuff to the dump next Sunday. It’s not innovation on a Thomas Edison scale, but it’s also not Facebook for parakeets. More and more, i worry that startups can’t tell the difference.