Marco Arment, the creator of the popular read-it-later tool Instapaper, has an excellent blog post discussing copying, innovation, and the best ways to react to competition. Arment discusses a new Instapaper competitor called Readability, which launched last week and received a lot of praise for including custom fonts, something Instapaper lacks:
I could have interpreted this defensively and complacently: “Georgia and Verdana are great, versatile, highly screen-readable fonts! I don’t need to do what competitors do! Newer isn’t always better! My crusty old fonts have some technical advantage that you don’t care about!” And so on. That would have just made me look stubborn and out of touch, failing to understand (in fact, trying very hard not to understand) why newer fonts could be attractive to customers, and failing to admit that I should have done it first.
Instead, I’m taking this misstep as a wake-up call: I missed an important opportunity that’s necessary for the long-term competitiveness of my product. So I’ve spent most of the last week testing tons of reading fonts, getting feedback from designers I respect, narrowing it down to a handful of great choices, and negotiating with their foundries for inclusion into the next version of Instapaper. And the results in testing so far are awesome. I wish someone had kicked my complacent ass about fonts sooner. Reacting well to competition requires critical analysis of your own product and its shortcomings, and a complete, open-minded understanding of why people might choose your competitors.