Hammer & Tusk


Snap is the MySpace of AR

Once upon a time, everyone needed a MySpace page. They were fun, hip, and full of selfies. In fact, they arguably launched selfies as a modern phenomenon, with the term “MySpace Pic” standing in as a synonym for “selfie” for years. Yet selfies remain, while MySpace has faded away. The only reason anyone brings it up anymore is to ask why it died while Facebook lived, or to compare it to current companies and ask if they, too, are going the MySpace way.

Speaking of, what’s Snap Inc. up to these days?

Snap has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. While Snapchat is insistent that their dancing hot dog is “the first AR superstar”, the new Pikachu Lens release is the most exciting thing they’ve done recently — and it isn’t very exciting. Snap lost $443 million over the last three months, and that’s compared to the $116 million they lost in the same period a year ago. Oh, yeah, that’s right. This loss isn’t a new trend. In fact, just before their IPO in early 2017, their CEO reminded potential investors that the company had a net loss of $514.6 million in 2016, and that they “may never achieve or maintain profitability.” Yet investors still raced to pour more money into the machine, arguing that Snap was looking forward, and profitability would come in time.

Now, only a few months later, that vision is being shaken by Facebook’s dogged determination to do everything Snapchat does, but better. From copying Lens to introducing Instagram Stories, Snapchat is no longer on the cutting edge. In fact, some of their technology is lagging behind what giants like Facebook and Google can achieve. Now Apple is coming up alongside Snap, with their ARKit launching for every smartphones by the end of 2017, and the future is in doubt.

There are a lot of theories about why Facebook won and MySpace failed. The one that’s the most interesting (and the most relevant to Snap’s current debacle) supposes that Facebook won the war because of something called “White Space management.” The idea behind White Space management is that a company shouldn’t be directed by a higher vision; instead, they should move where the market wants them to go. Facebook was initially a web platform where users could post on each other’s walls. But people wanted to play games with each other, so Zuckerberg built in apps (remember Farmville?) to allow a completely different kind of interaction on the site. It wasn’t just pivoting; it was saying yes to literally everything and seeing what stuck.

The problem is that Snapchat can’t be everything to everyone. Their popularity hinges on being exclusive; kids use Snapchat because their parents can’t figure out how to, and as soon as the business expands to capture a larger base, they risk losing their fervent fans. Plus, the ephemerality that Snapchat was launched on hampers their ability to be used in other situations. Saving Snaps and rewatching them later is technically possible, but the platform makes it difficult, and pivoting in such a major way is hard. It isn’t impossible, but it seems like the will to make the move isn’t there. Innovation at Snap is hesitant, with toe dipping instead of whole-hearted movement. Instead of experimenting in big ways, they’re toying with hardware, not quite diving into original content, and generally giving nothing the attention it needs to thrive.

It seems like the question is no longer will Snapchat fall. Instead, the question is, if Snapchat is MySpace, who’s Facebook?

It’s possible that Facebook is the Facebook of the AR fight. They’ve done an excellent job copying Snapchat’s innovations and then boosting them with superior engineering. Their Instagram Stories did well, and their moves into AR have been popular. They make it easy to share creations, and so far no one else is competing quite at their level.

Then there’s Apple, who is just at the beginning of their AR journey. They have yet to bring AR into messaging (and arguably don’t exist in the social media war), but their ARKits will make it incredibly easy for someone else to build out on that platform. It could be that the Facebook of AR doesn’t exist yet, and will build itself up through Apple’s ARKit (and maybe get acquired in the process).

Of course, Google is always a contender. They’re lagging pretty hard on social media, with Google Plus and Allo both failing pretty miserably, but they also have the innovation department that launched a thousand ships. Time will see if they can break into this space in a serious way.

For now, we’d hold off on buying any stock from anyone if AR is the horse you want to ride. This race is far from over, and a dancing hot dog is unlikely to make it to the last lap. Its legs are so small.

Written by Wren Handman for Hammer & Tusk.

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