Plurk (left), and Microsoft’s Juku.
Social networking services are a dime a dozen these days, so it’s hard to keep track, but what you may not know is that Mississauga-based Plurk is a big deal in China. That market is so potentially lucrative that software behemoth Microsoft felt inclined to steamroll the Canadian microblogging startup by launching their own similar service, Juku. And by similar, we mean stolen.
Tipped off by bloggers following the launch of Juku in November, the Plurk folk noticed some remarkable similarities to their own product, which they deem “Asia’s number one microblogging service.” Plurk’s user interface features a side-scrolling timeline, which displays each member’s
tweet Plurk along a temporal graph. Verbs like “is,” “loves,” “thinks,” and “wants” follow the user’s name in a colourful pulldown menu, and Plurkers earn an overall “karma score” dependent on the interaction of their friends. All of these elements mysteriously appeared, with a virtually identical UI, in Juku.
But it wasn’t just a matter of imitation: Plurk looked into Juku’s codebase, and discovered that most of it had been copied directly from their own—Plurk says 80% of it remained unchanged. The company posted side-by-side comparisons of the identical lifted code, and there was little to argue.
Yesterday, Microsoft was forced to concede, suspending Juku “indefinitely” and admitting that Plurk had been plundered. Attempting to deflect bad PR, Microsoft claimed that it was unaware of the theft, which it blamed on a third party. Plurk says that its user base is ten times larger than Twitter in Taiwan alone, and that prior to an earlier censorship by the Chinese government, it was the most popular microblogging service in China—so it’s a bit difficult to see how Juku evolved so far without anybody at Microsoft noticing the similarities, especially as it related to the project’s primary competition.
For Microsoft, the optics are a problem. The company is notorious for (justifiably) hunting down and prosecuting anyone who appropriates Microsoft intellectual property, especially as it relates to its flagship products, Windows and Office. Microsoft guards its code vehemently, and its partner contracts are ultra-stringent, but it’s not the first time the gargantuan software empire has been accused of stealing from someone else’s cookie jar. Just last month, a Windows 7 download tool was pulled after it was found to include unauthorized open-source code. The company is also frequently accused of aggressively using its market share muscle to crowbar its own imitative products into standard use; most famously, Internet Explorer.
“If this was just a case of visual inspiration gone too far, we could probably have lived with it,” says the team at Plurk. “We’re still in shock asking why Microsoft would even stoop to this level of wilfully plagiarising a young and innovative upstart’s work rather than reach out to us or innovate on their own terms.”
In a press release, Microsoft assumed responsibility, saying that the company will reexamine their code practices as they pertain to third-party vendors. “This was in clear violation of the vendor’s contract with the MSN China joint venture,” Microsoft stated. “We are a company that respects intellectual property.”
All images courtesy of Plurk.