Did Strava copy its mobile route builder from another app?

By Matt de Neef

What do you do when a new feature in a competitor’s smartphone app looks a lot like the defining feature of your app? What can you do? That’s the position San Francisco developer Eric Wolfe has found himself in the past few weeks after social fitness giant Strava recently rolled out its Route Builder for Mobile.

As reported on CyclingTips last week, Strava’s mobile route builder allows users to trace a potential route with a finger on their smartphone and the app will “snap” that path to a route for the athlete to ride (or run). It’s an exciting development for those who often create routes, even if it’s lacking some basic features at this stage. It means routes can be created from the convenience of your smartphone, rather than having to pull out your laptop.

Eric Wolfe is far less excited by the development. He claims that Strava’s Route Builder for Mobile copies functionality that he introduced to his Footpath app back in 2013. When contacted by CyclingTips, Strava presented their own version of events, saying that their route builder – which uses the company’s Heat Maps to guide route selection – was a unique breakthrough in the space.

Wolfe believes Strava copied Footpath’s finger-based mapping in late December shortly after Footpath came onto Strava’s radar.

“Footpath was recently promoted by the [Apple] App Store, [tech product site] Product Hunt, and a few others in October and November,” Wolfe told CyclingTips. “There was even a tweet by Product Hunt in early November featuring Footpath that went out to 350K followers, with the Product Hunt founder cc’ing @strava. So, when Strava claimed they came up with the idea in December, and built it out over January, I thought the timeline felt conveniently … inspired.

“Then, the day after the feature was announced [on February 13], a Strava iOS engineer replied back to that early-November Product Hunt tweet featuring Footpath, and it became clear that Footpath was on Strava’s radar.”

Wolfe did some digging into Footpath’s server logs, to see whether staff at Strava had been using Footpath. They had.

“I discovered multiple accounts and dozens of routing requests originating from Strava’s corporate IP address starting in November — literally hours after the Product Hunt tweet about Footpath,” Wolfe said. “Digging even further, a good percentage of the requests occurred over a six-hour period on December 12th and 13th. Strava’s December ‘hackathon’ where they purportedly conceived the idea? Also right around this time.”

Footpath’s Application Programming Interface (API) logs, seen by CyclingTips, do indeed show multiple instances of Footpath API access from Strava HQ between October and December 2018. Four requests were made in the day following Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover’s tweet tagging Strava. Several clusters of requests followed through November before a flurry of activity in December.

Footpath’s API logs show nearly two and a half hours of activity from a user at Strava HQ on December 12, including the creation of 23 screenshots between 5:04pm and 7:25pm. The logs also show continued access between 10:45am and 8:40pm the following day. Four further API requests were made from Strava HQ through January.

Wolfe explains that he was initially “surprised and confused” when he saw Strava had launched their Route Builder for Mobile.

“My first thought was, ‘Are you serious? They’ve cloned Footpath!’”, he said. “Then I tried their new feature and felt a little underwhelmed. It’s a nice try, but they still have a lot of work to do.”

While Wolfe is “disappointed” with Strava’s approach, he understands that products and ideas are often copied and built upon within the tech industry. He points to the example of Instagram’s “notorious clone” of Snapchat in August 2016, which led to Instagram Stories — a clone that, Wolfe points out, was successful.

“I think it’s fine to repurpose and improve upon others ideas — that’s how innovation happens,” Wolfe said. “Footpath wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for MapMyRun and their idea of plotting out runs on a map back in 2005. I think I originally followed a tutorial on how to clone a whiteboard app to create the first drawing interface for Footpath.

“But you cross an ethical line when you copy an idea without any meaningful differentiation and attempt to call it your own, let alone attribute the source of your inspiration.

“Others have been applauding Strava’s Route Builder for Mobile as their most innovative product release in three years. Turns out it’s pretty easy to bring a product to market when someone’s already done the hard work of innovating for you.”

So has Strava crossed “an ethical line” here? Or is this just another example of a company building on the work of a rival?

Robert Merkel is a Lecturer in Software Engineering at Monash University (and a VeloClub member). From his perspective, there are certainly similarities between Footpath and what Strava has implemented, but Strava doesn’t appear to have overstepped the mark.

“It’s very plausible that Strava based their new feature in large part on Footpath, and in the process may have conducted extensive experimentation with Footpath,” Merkel told CyclingTips. “However, nothing I’ve seen demonstrates — and nor does Footpath appear to be claiming — that legally-protected intellectual property was copied.

“Software copyright does not provide any legal protection against the reimplementation of the same ideas – only a patent can do that.”

Wolfe confirmed to CyclingTips that he doesn’t own a patent for the creation of routes via finger tracing on a smartphone. And even if he did “trying to defend it against a company of Strava’s size would be extremely risky,” he said. “If they really wanted to, they could drag out the legal process until I ran out of money from legal fees.

“The U.S. patent system doesn’t really favor small companies in this regard.”

Left two images: Footpath snaps a finger-traced route to roads. Right two images: Strava’s mobile app doing the same process.

In correspondence with CyclingTips, Wolfe said he felt Strava had “plagiarised” from Footpath, but as Robert Merkel explains, the concept of plagiarism is a fraught one, particularly in the case of the IT industry.

“Plagiarism is not a legal concept — it’s one of professional ethics in certain professions,” Merkel said. “Academia and journalism have very strong ethical norms about plagiarism. The information technology industry does not, at least in the context of companies acknowledging other companies’ products as inspiration.

“Companies in the IT industry have been copying features from each other since its beginnings, rarely acknowledging the source of the ideas that they have incorporated into their own products. The initial announcement of the Android mobile operating system back in 2007, to take one very well-known example, does not mention Apple, the iPhone, or iOS once.

“Strava not mentioning the source of some of the ideas they have now implemented in their app is pretty standard practice.”

It’s also worth noting that Footpath isn’t the only app that allows users to create routes by tracing on a smartphone screen — NavRoute is another such app. It seems highly plausible that Strava also took inspiration from other apps behind Footpath.

As frustrated as he is, Wolfe ultimately realises there’s little he can do. He’s tried contacting Strava, but is not expecting much to come of it.

“I reached out to the engineer at Strava who supposedly conceptualized the feature, but I haven’t heard back from him yet,” Wolfe explained. “I may try reaching out again, but there’s really not much I can do or can expect to happen, other than them acknowledging the matter.

“I’m just one developer against a 125-person company that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars, so outside of being a bit more agile and shipping better products, putting up a fight isn’t really worth anyone’s time.”

So what does Strava make of all this? We reached out to the company to find out.

“Research is a common part of feature development and the maps and routing space is full of innovation,” said Strava’s director of communications, Andrew Vontz. “But the breakthrough with [Strava’s] Route Builder for Mobile is how the curve gets translated to a refined route powered by what we’ve learned from our more than 2 billion activities.”

As referenced by Vontz, Strava’s Route Builder for Mobile snaps finger-traced routes to roads and paths based on the company’s vast wealth of athlete activity information, aligning those routes with the most popular routes in the vicinity. In this way, it can be seen as a logical extension of the company’s web-based route builder, which was launchd back in 2013.

So what should we make of this whole saga? From the outside, it seems likely that Strava was strongly influenced by Footpath in the creation of its new Route Builder for Mobile. It also seems like such influence was perfectly legal. There’s nothing untoward about a company accessing a rival company’s product, to assess the competition or even to get ideas. And as noted by Merkel, copying of rival products happens all the time.

That’s not to say Wolfe doesn’t have a right to be frustrated. He’s been working on his app, on his own, since 2010. It’s been a side-project for most of that time, but he’s been full-time on Footpath for the past nine months, “with the intention of growing it into a bigger business”. To see one of his project’s defining features appear in the app of a much bigger rival would certainly be frustrating.

For now, he can take solace in the fact that Footpath’s mobile routing is more feature-rich and much easier to use than Strava’s, although Strava will surely catch up soon. And while he’s frustrated, Wolfe is still excited for the future. An Android release of Footpath is coming later this year, among other things.

“The plan’s been to continue innovating and shipping,” he said. “We’ve got a huge update to Footpath coming this spring that will excite a lot of runners and cyclists — and existing Strava users.”

The feature image on this article shows the Footpath app (left) and Strava’s Route Builder for Mobile (right), side by side. In both screenshots, a route has been traced onscreen and the app is in the process of snapping it to nearby roads.