What if Facebook eventually beats Snapchat at its own game?
Up till now, we've really only seen Facebook copy Snapchat, duplicating the app's core features and functions in an effort to slow the migration of their users - younger users, in particular - across to Snap. But really, Facebook's alternate offerings, in their current state at least, don't really match up.
For example, one of Facebook's more recent Snapchat-clone announcements was the new camera tools for Messenger, which include a range of "stickers, frames, masks and effects".
And those are all fine and interesting, but the mask tools are likely the biggest draw, and there are only eight masks available in total - and they're not as good as Snapchat's Lenses. By comparison, Snapchat currently has more than 20 Lenses available for use within the app, all of which I'd put ahead of the current Messenger masks, in terms of appeal and use.
This is only one aspect of Facebook's push, of course, there are other masks available in other regions and apps - it's early days for Facebook's Snapchat-like tools. And for Snapchat, that's a problem - while Facebook's only duplicating their features for now, there will likely come a time where Facebook's visual tools and functions are better and more engaging than Snapchat's. And if that happens, where does that leave the app in users' eyes?
Many would argue that Snapchat's audience is very dedicated and aligned to the app, but I wouldn't be so sure. For example, Facebook's working on new visual tools like 'reactive filters' which enable users to push virtual objects around on screen.
This is a very early version of the functionality, and likely only a small indicator of where Facebook is headed with this - Facebook's also working on a wide range of virtual reality tools and features which could all lend themselves to the augmented reality style offerings that make Snapchat's Lenses so cool.
So if Facebook, eventually, has the same functionality as Snapchat, with Stories and messaging and image enhancing features, but Facebook refines them to the point where they're actually better and more engaging, what then?
A Camera Company
No doubt Snap Inc. has considered this outcome - given Facebook's resources and audience, it seems likely that they will eventually overtake Snapchat, if they so want to. This is why Snapchat has re-branded itself as 'a camera company' as opposed to a social media app.
That change lessens the comparison to Facebook, which Twitter has long struggled with, but at the same time, Snapchat's also likely angling towards the next iteration of their business - which may see Snapchat itself de-emphasized, yet still enable Snap to grow and expand beyond the app itself.
The focus here is obviously Spectacles, Snap Inc's first hardware play, and it does seem that there's a lot more to Spectacles that what we're currently seeing.
For example, before the launch of Spectacles, the discussion around the project seemed to indicate that they'd be much more than a pair of sunglasses that can merely record what you're seeing.
Early in the year, before the Spectacles release, reports indicated that Snapchat had hired several people who'd worked on Microsoft's HoloLens project, which, in theory, enables people to overlay what they're seeing with computer-generated elements, as opposed to merely seeing what's there.
HoloLens has had its share of problems over time, but the concept is far bigger than the current Spectacles experience we're seeing. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean Snap Inc is looking to make Spectacles more focused on augmented reality, but there are other indicators that this is either where they were, or are, headed with the project.
Back in June, Business Insider reported that Snapchat had an open job posting for a 3D mobile software engineer, with requirements including:
- Bring the most innovative product concepts to life to help push the boundaries of mobile user experience and interface design across a new category of computer vision products
- Investigate and solve exciting and difficult challenges in image recognition, classification, and augmented reality
Again, this could be related to another project, like their new image recognition-triggered ads, but all indications seemed to suggest that Spectacles would actually enable people to experience a more immersive, augmented reality-style experience through the glasses - and the addition of 'World Lenses' shortly after Spectacles' release also pointed to this being where the tool was headed.
In this sense, the current version of Spectacles seems to be only the beginning of the project, and the latest announcement - that Snap Inc is opening a new research and development office in China - supports this line of thinking.
For one, the fact that they're opening a new research facility would likely suggest that sales of Spectacles have met their expectations, giving them confidence to continue on with the project. But secondly, establishing a research and development center in China, which is near where Spectacles are actually built, underlines that they're working on the next iteration, that there's more to come from the device.
And that next level could be where Snapchat is really focused, particularly with Facebook working to push them out of the social app space.
Given this, the possibilities for what Snapchat might become are significant. What if Snap Inc comes out early in the new year and announces a new set of lenses for Spectacles which enable users to layer virtual elements over their field of vision?
They're already overcome one of the main hurdles that Google Glass stumbled on, which is that Spectacles have managed to maintain the cool factor, that people actually want to wear them in public, as opposed to being concerned about how they might be perceived. And it's worth remembering that before Google Glass ran into trouble, it was projected to become an $11 billion market, far beyond the current expectations for Snapchat's ad revenue moving forward.
If Snap Inc can add that 'next level' element to Spectacles and make them into a must-have tech device, maybe the future of the company isn't in Snapchat at all. Maybe their switch to a camera company isn't just a mere hedge to avoid unflattering comparisons to Facebook, maybe it's accurate and their future projects won't revolve around the app itself.
As Facebook continues to chip away at their audience with new features and tools, it seems obvious that Snap Inc needs to account for the potential that they might lose out in that battle. It's possible, with Spectacles, that they're already prepared for such an outcome.
What does this mean for Snapchat moving forward? It's hard to say, but it does seem increasingly likely that Facebook is going to eventually bully Snapchat out of the market. Not straight away, Snapchat's not going anywhere any time soon, but Facebook's copycat additions are likely slowing Snapchat's user growth - the last time we got an update on Snapchat's daily active user numbers was back in June, before the release of Instagram Stories.
And as Facebook continue to squeeze Snapchat, Snap Inc is undoubtedly already considering its next move. If, as noted, Facebook starts releasing better features than Snapchat, that's when the real push will happen, and Snap Inc will be forced to assess the impacts on user expansion moving forward.
It's a battle Facebook may win, but the war could go on for some time via a newly enabled Snap service.
UPDATE 12/24: Venture Beat is reporting that Snapchat has acquired Israeli-based startup Cimagine Media for $40 million. Cimagine specializes in computer vision, with a focus on the benefits of augmented reality for eCommerce - check out this video:
Now imagine that through Spectacles.
Snap Inc. could already be ahead of the competition.