Facebook is responding to the challenge from Snap in the classic way that tech companies try to face new competitors — by duplicating every core feature that made Snap popular, and then trying to crush it with distribution and marketing.
According to a story published Tuesday in The Information (subscription required), Facebook created a “Teens Team” to figure out how to grab teenagers back from Snapchat, and has been up front about its tactics within the company: The internal mantra among some groups is “don’t be too proud to copy.”
Unfortunately for Facebook, the track record for this strategy is poor.
Flash back to the early 2000s, when Microsoft was the undisputed king of the tech industry, with two unassailable monopolies — operating systems and productivity apps for personal computers.
It faced a lot of competitors, but the one that scared it the most was Google, which was in a completely different business.
Google didn’t start by creating alternatives to Windows and Office, although it did so later. Instead, it created a suite of online services — first search, followed by email and maps — that threatened the entire purpose of a personal computer. Why rely on Microsoft software running locally when you could get so much done with web apps?
Microsoft’s response? Trying to build the exact same service that made Google famous — a search engine, first known as MSN Search, later rebranded to Bing.
Eleven years later, Bing is a small minority player in search, with less than 10 percent market share on the desktop and less than 1 percent in mobile, according to NetMarketShare. Google dominates with almost 80 percent share on the desktop and well over 90 percent in mobile. “Google” has become a verb. Nobody “Bings” anything.
Bolstered by the massive margins in search advertising, Google has moved farther and farther into Microsoft’s core territory, adding a massively successful mobile operating system (Android), web browser (Chrome), online productivity apps (Google for Work) and an increasingly robust cloud computing business. It also surpassed Microsoft in market cap for the first time in 2012, and remains ahead today.
Google faced its own Bing moment in 2011, when it faced a challenge from then-upstart Facebook. The social network didn’t threaten Google by building a better search engine. It did so by creating an entirely different online service, based around social networking and real identities, that drew people’s attention away from search and other Google properties. As people spent more and more time on Facebook, advertisers followed.
Google’s response? To launch a competing social network based on real identities called Google+. It was just as successful as Bing — which is to say, not successful at all.
Facebook may still win. After all, Microsoft used this playbook very effectively in the 1990s to eliminate the threat posed by Netscape Navigator — it built a better browser, then shipped it with Windows. It dominated web browsing for almost a decade (until Google came along with Chrome and Apple‘s iPhone introduced the concept of effective mobile web browsing).
But Microsoft in the 1990s had an effective monopoly on personal computing platforms with Windows. If you wanted to go online, you had to go out of your way not to use Windows. The same is not true for Facebook — there are many ways to communicate and share information in real time with friends, including text messaging platforms like SMS and Apple’s iMessage, and competing social networks like Twitter and — yes — Snapchat.
Facebook will have to do more to regain teens’ attention than simply duplicating every feature that made Snapchat popular.
Disclsoure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Snap.