In 2013, Facebook approached Snapchat with a buyout offer of $3 billion (about Rs. 16,500 crores), which then had just 5 million daily active users. Evan Spiegel, co-founder and CEO of the company now called Snap, promptly declined. When Snap went public early last month, it was valued at $28 billion (about Rs. 1.85 lakh crores). And that user figure had jumped to 158 million.
Owing to Spiegel’s success in attracting young people to the ephemeral messaging platform, Facebook has tried every trick in the book to steal Snapchat’s thunder. There have been a couple of failed standalone clones along the way, and it has relentlessly copied one of Snapchat’s big innovations, to varying degrees of success. It has widely implemented ‘Stories’, a slide-show of pictures and videos that’s visible to all followers for only 24 hours after upload.
First, Facebook brought this to Instagram in August last year. Then, the same feature was implemented in WhatsApp two months ago, in what was termed a modification of the existing WhatsApp Status. When it came to Messenger last month, Facebook called it Messenger Day. And just a few weeks ago, all of Snapchat’s core functionality – including the ability to apply augmented-reality masks, or Lenses as most know them by – was embedded directly into the Facebook app.
It’s quite clear that Facebook’s approach to stomping Snapchat isn’t clever integration. Rather, it’s carpet-bombing. But it seems to have worked. Just last week, Instagram announced that more than 200 million people use its Stories feature. That’s more users than Snapchat has on its entire platform. When Facebook acquired the photo-sharing platform in 2012, it had about 30 million users in total, and it now stands around 600 million. And yet, Instagram has the smallest user base out of Facebook’s four main properties.
Facebook is by far the world’s largest social network, with close to 2 billion users. WhatsApp, Facebook’s biggest buyout at $19 billion, has a billion users of its own. Messenger, an in-feature that was spun out on its own, has a billion users too. And because it has the users, Facebook can court developers and advertising money better than any other.
That’s what Mark Zuckerberg – the man himself – did earlier this week at the company’s developer-oriented conference, F8. In a jab at Snapchat, the co-founder and CEO said that the arrival of AR-enabled filters and effects were just the “phase one” of their plan. And where Snapchat has two dozen filters at the most, Zuckerberg noted that Facebook will have thousands of them by opening it to creators around the world. And even though he didn’t say it, you can bet brands too will be allowed to get in on the action.
“We’re making the camera the first augmented reality platform,” Zuckerberg added. In its second act, Facebook is going to expand the reach of augmented reality to include everything in your environment. Place some sharks around your breakfast bowl? You got it. Take a still image and convert it into 3D? Easily doable, he said. Identify a coffee mug and suggest relevant effects, such as steam? Yep, it’s on its way.
Snapchat's Spiegel isn’t obviously ready to hand in the towel. The day of Facebook’s event, Snapchat rolled out ‘World Lenses’ that let you do the very thing Zuckerberg showed off. You can place text and have it behave as a real-world object, or plant virtual flowers into the ground that you can later interact with. And while Facebook gave the tools to developers in a beta phase, Snap’s offerings are already available to everyone.
But Zuckerberg won’t mind. When you’ve got the keys to four biggest social networks on the planet, being late to the party doesn't really bother you. And that has allowed him – and in turn, Facebook – to play the long game. The company’s purchase of Oculus for over $2 billion (about Rs. 12,000 crores) back in 2014 left many bemused. Would Facebook serve its News Feed in virtual reality, and place advertisements all around us?
Turns out, not really. Nearly three years on from that acquisition, Facebook’s social VR division unveiled its first product in beta: Facebook Spaces, a virtual hangout space for you and your friends, replete with digital avatars, customisable environments, and even video calls for those that don’t own an Oculus Rift. No other company is betting as heavily as Facebook on VR, and Zuckerberg made it clear at this week’s conference that AR will receive a similar emphasis.
The 32-year-old multi-billionaire thought glasses would be the “first mainstream augmented reality platform”, not the Spectacles kind, but à la Google Glass. For now, it’s focused on the camera. Facebook’s ultimate vision is to let AR break beyond the restrictions of your phone’s screen onto glasses and maybe even contact lenses, where it then controls literally what you see. But it knows the technology required isn’t quite there yet.
“Even if we were slow to add cameras to all our apps, I’m confident that we’re going to be the ones who push this technology forward,” Zuckerberg added. Snapchat may have popularised the camera effects within the younger crowd – most of them in the millennial generation – but thanks to its reach and investment, it’ll be the billions of users on Facebook’s different platforms that will witness the advent of next-level AR where they already are.
Once that happens, they won’t feel the need to switch to Snapchat. And Facebook would have won, again.