The importance of cloning on the Internet

Tracing the history of a technology helps a lot when you’re working out what features matter and how to apply them. The building blocks of the Internet such as the web server, web browser, and network transport protocols hold the keys to a lot of insights if you look closely at how they work.

Take the primary function of Apache’s http web server, for example. When you ask a web site for a page the web server doesn’t give you the original. It makes a copy to give to you.

The effect of seeing that page on your computer makes you feel like you have opened a window directly to that site. In fact, you’re really just holding a copy of what you asked for, just like everyone else.

The experience is like magic, and I’m often still in awe of it all 20 years after installing my first web browser.

That’s not all. The page you asked for gets split up into little bits which each get a destination address and assembly instructions stamped onto them so they know where to go and how to reassemble at the other end.

Perhaps the inventor of the Internet is actually Roald Dahl as the founding fathers were clearly inspired by Wonkavision.

This copy-and-send idea has been translated and reapplied in a lot of different ways since the web server was first created.

The whole world of reposts and retweets is fundamentally an extension of the way the web server responds to a request. However these fresh interpretations include the brilliant addition of stamping the source of the re-whatever as a new point of distribution where further copies are offered to others.

Whereas this kind of activity happened only at the deepest levels of the Internet’s architecture they have now been exposed at the surface so that normal people can do the same thing. The effects have been incredible to watch as Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook took off largely as a result of applying these concepts in their own ways.

We’re basically taking about cloning the original data and offering it back out with some amendments.

The first consumer-y ‘cloning’ feature that really struck me was Yahoo! Pipes in early 2007. You could create a data feed using Pipes, and then others could clone your feed and adjust it for their needs. It had this incredible jumpstarting effect where more advanced users would identify useful things to do first and others could learn from them by copying their work and adjusting it for themselves – self-serve vocational training at its best.

Of course, ‘cloning’ things and making them your own is an idea as old as language. Anyone with children knows this is natural human behavior. But it is a core principle of the way the Internet works that often fails to find its way into digital services that would benefit from it.

The API boom of the last decade was a wholesale deployment of cloning at scale. Many API providers fail to offer services that benefit either the clonee or the cloner, but those that do find their core business expanding at pace with the Internet’s growth as opposed to expanding at pace with their customer acquisition strategy.

Uber is the latest startup to grasp the importance of a loosely connected and distributed business model. According to TechCrunch they plan to allow others to add Uber functionality into their products. Those products will be better and Uber will get more business. Everybody wins.

It’s not unlike McDonald’s franchise model, though there’s a big difference between 1) franchising the way something works vs 2) franchising the whole business and brand.

The first is simply encouraging the replicate features of Internet software to do what they already do. The second is a lot more complicated and controlling and requires a very committed partner network. The first requires only seeding to get started. The second requires financial incentives which may take a long time to become meaningful.

It’s very easy to get caught up in controlling your brand as it gets copied and distributed around the world from web server to web server. That paranoia will lead to features that curb activity rather than encourage more usage.

The trick is to build cloning as an integral piece of the business, not just technically but core to the way the business operates and succeeds.

Your software wants to clone stuff, so let it.