Lessons from hardware: Snapchat grows up
Snapchat made two important announcements this week, which have given me pause; I am beginning to get the point of it after all
For some years now, I have been amazed by how happy my children and their friends have been using Snapchat on their mobile phones. Snapchat is an app that runs on smartphones and is designed to provide “Snapchatters” the ability to record just a few seconds of video content or a photograph and send it to another Snapchatter (or a group of them). The technology allows the receiving party the ability to view the photograph for only a few seconds, after which the video or chat on the receiver’s phone is obliterated.
Being an “old fashioned” father, the ability to allow a person a momentary peek into my life seems puerile to me. That said, Snapchat seems to be an important way to communicate among children, and I decided to download it. Truth be told, I have hardly ever used it, not so much because I have difficulty with making the technology work, but more because I draw a blank when it comes to creating meaningful content to share with my children, when I still have old-fashioned text messaging or email as a means to communicate with them when they are not close at hand.
Snapchat made two important announcements this week, which have given me pause. I am beginning to get the point of it after all. The first announcement was that it was changing its name from Snapchat to Snap Inc.
When founded, it was aptly named “Picaboo”. Somewhere along the line, the ability to add a small amount of text and to place that text in a strategic location on the photo became an important aspect of the app, and so the moniker “Snapchat” was appropriate. The move to Snap Inc. seeks to distance itself from its chat capabilities, and puts it in a position to create new products.
The second announcement this week was the rollout of a new product by Snap Inc. called “Spectacles”, which are indeed what they say there are, spectacles, but embedded with a camera which can record video in bursts of 10 second increments. This shift is profound in many ways. “Spectacles” is not just another piece of software or a cool app designed to run on a smartphone; it is, in fact, a piece of hardware. This hardware then connects to smartphones via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and can then use the “mother-app” on the phone for users to communicate with one another.
“Why does this mark an important shift?,” you may ask. “Didn’t Google come up with Google Glass a couple of years ago?” Yes, it did; but Google Glass was designed to be many more things than just a simple camera, and cost ten times as much as Spectacles’ asking price of $130, which makes the latter much more accessible. Second, as I have pointed out before, the first mover in technology does not always have an advantage. Google was not the first industrial strength search engine. That honour goes to Yahoo. Similarly, Facebook was not the first social networking site. Third, Spectacles is not positioned like Google Glass, which was positioned as a computer. Spectacles are being touted simply as cameras, similar to the GoPro video camera products which allow for excellent editing and later online sharing through apps such as Instagram.
These moves are critically important for Snapchat. Facebook is attempting to take a slice of its market share in the app-world, using its already formidable arsenal in the social-network world. It has acquired both Instagram (a photo-sharing site) and WhatsApp—a text/chat app—and linking the two together could eviscerate Snapchat.
The attempt to rebrand as more than just a chat company—and the serious move into hardware—instead of more software—could turn out to be what differentiates a one-trick pony into a company that is always one step ahead of its competition.
Meanwhile, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal this week, some of the largest retail grocery firms in the US—including Kroger—are abandoning the large workforces in their grocery sorting and shipping centres and plunging untold millions of dollars into setting up automated sorting and dispatching centres using robots made either in Germany or the US. These robots are programmed to sort through and pack similar items, and significantly reduce the need for human workers at these distribution centres. This has allowed grocery chains not to expand their distribution centres in California, a state with expensive real estate and labour, in order to meet a surge in demand from the American south-west.
There is a link between the two seemingly unrelated pieces of news—one from old-fashioned grocery businesses, and the other from a cutting-edge app company that didn’t even exist a few years ago—the use of hardware as a competitive advantage and not yet another tired announcement of “digital disruption”.
If smart hardware is the common link, then it seems to me that India’s bewildered software services companies must soon turn their attention to producing intelligent hardware in order to stay ahead of a market where automation is already eating into the lower-skilled repetitive tasks that they provide their customers and artificial intelligence into the more skilled ones.
If ‘Make in India’ is an imperative, then it might behoove our software giants to start creating hardware products such as the robots that service Kroger, rather than just running the back office for such customers. They certainly have the cash to invest in product design and manufacturing, and their engineering talent can be repurposed into creating intelligent hardware.
Siddharth Pai is a management and technology consultant.