Snapchat Doubles Down On Hardware

The social media giant is differentiating itself from its weighty competition


Snap Inc is having to think outside the box. A stagnating core app, rocked by wildly powerful competition, has led social media's outlier to experiment with other potential revenue streams going forward. While Snap's original smartglasses 'Spectacles' were received with little fanfare, the second iteration promises to have removed some of the problems they had.

They're less bulky than their predecessor, they transfer videos to a smartphone at 4x the speed, they have a far smaller charging case, and they can now take pictures on top of video. By adding prescription options, too, Snap has created a genuinely wearable product that has launched for a not outrageous $150. If the first iteration of the Spectacles was a relatively unsuccessful test launch - less than half of the 220,000 buyers used them after the first month - then V2 is an attempt to move the hardware into the mainstream.

Snap's history has been somewhat defined by its competition with Facebook, and more specifically the Facebook-owned Instagram. With numerous acquisition attempts and consistent adoption of some of Snapchat's most successful features, Facebook has used its overwhelming resources to slow the competition down. Despite a slightly higher reach among users aged 13 to 24 (79% to Instagram's 73%), Snapchat's growth has slowed while Instagram's has been steady. To put the relative sizes of the apps in perspective, Snapchat had 187 million daily active users in Q4 of 2017, compared to Instagram's 500 million, according to Statista. Growth has been incomparable, too, with Instagram soaring as Snapchat slows.

For a social media company, the move into wearable hardware is novel in and of itself. Snap will be hoping that bringing the Spectacles into the mainstream will further differentiate Snapchat from its competitors, something the company has been exceptional at doing throughout its existence. When it introduced ephemeral multimedia messaging six years ago, Snapchat engaged an entire demographic looking for a way to communicate with picture and video without the permanence of posting to Facebook or Instagram. It followed it up with Stories, a feature so popular it changed how many people interact with social media altogether, and has been coopted into just about every Facebook product there is. Snap will be hoping the Spectacles can be the next in a line of game-changing innovations in the way users and brands think about social media, though it may find hardware difficult to sell than new features.

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If it can encourage users to buy and actually use its Spectacles, Snap will find an entirely unique form of content for its platform. The glasses record in a circular format, meaning no matter which way the viewer tilts their smartphone, the video always fills the screen and keeps the creator's perspective. It's a novel form of content that might rival Facebook's push for 360 video - which, as it stands, very few people can view as intended, owing to very few people having VR headsets. Some genuinely unique content might entice users back onto the service. Speaking to TechCrunch, Snap's VP of hardware, Mark Randall, said the company is starting to reach out to professional creators - which it didn't the first time round - in an attempt to display what can be done on the medium.

You can also see Snap's move as an attempt to get a head-start on smart eyewear more generally. There's consensus that the future of smart devices is hands-free, and the face is predicted to be the battleground for major tech companies going forward. Google's ill-fated Google Glass experiment fell flat, but Snap hasn't created an augmented reality device, nor has it made an essential product that can rival the smartphone. What is has done, though, is create a product users can actually wear now. If users can become comfortable wearing Snap's glasses all day, they may be more receptive when more functional eyewear hits the market.

It remains to be seen whether the second run of the Spectacles will be more of a success than the first. The hardware still only works smoothly with the Snapchat app itself, which may put some creators off, and it is unfortunate for Snap that its audience is primarily teenaged. Randall tells TechCrunch that Snap is expecting to release a lot of hardware going forward, though, so V2 could simply be another step down a route of differentiation and ultimately salvation for what is still a precariously-positioned startup. 


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