Snapchat—the image messaging application created by three students at Stanford University—has morphed into a software and hardware company. Their first camera product will be the US$130 sunglasses called Spectacles, which includes a video camera and should ship this fall.
This is a simpler variation on Google Glass: there’s no full mobile device in the sunglasses, and no output displayed for the user. On one side of the glasses is a small camera, while on the other there's an LED “I’m recording” indicator light. These glasses only do one tech thing: record video (10 or 30 second clips), then offload them via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to your connected mobile device.
Curiously, Snap (more on that in a moment) has chosen to record 115° circular video with their camera. I’m not sure why that was chosen, though it certainly means that when you get a message with a Spectacles-created video in it, you’ll know where the video came from ;~).
But the more interesting thing about the Snapchat announcement is that Snapchat is no longer Snapchat. It’s just Snap. As if to emphasize this, their Web site now says: “Snap Inc. is a camera company. We believe that reinventing the camera represents our greatest opportunity to improve the way people live and communicate.”
This is the worst case scenario for the Japanese camera companies as the trend in imaging continues in the "Silicon Valley" direction. Snap’s hardware is very low end, basically lowest common denominator, and there’s no real potential for the Japanese to do with this type of product what they did with cameras originally (undercut the primary supplier, which at the time was Germany).
The problem is that software is where the action is at, and what’s controlling the shift in imaging.
Back when I helped create the original QuickCam (Connectix in 1994; sold to Logitech), our goal was to create a Trojan Horse, not be in the camera business. In order to sell software—in Snap’s case, give away software that allows them to sell user views to advertisers—you need a critical mass. At the time, we were working on digital imaging software, but there really weren’t a lot of outlets for it, as digital cameras were rare. Within 18 months we had a hardware base of over 1m users and an outlet for the imaging software products we were working on.
This is the conundrum in tech hardware. If you’re not careful, even innovative and unique hardware can and will go commodity on you, and when it does you’re suddenly involved in a dive-to-the-bottom race where you’re trying to cut costs in order to make any profit. Apple mostly avoided this in the Mac marketplace—at least after Jobs returned to the company—by being 100% involved in innovating the software side of their hardware product and keeping it unique.
So what are the camera companies to make of new entrants like Snap? None of them have the software—let alone software in active use by customers—that Snap does. Making a competitive product means either (a) trying to wedge underneath them with price and be Snapchat compatible, or (b) come up with their own messaging software and attract more users than Snap. (b) isn’t going to happen, and (a) isn’t meaningfully profitable and just makes a competitor more successful.
Imaging sensors are ubiquitous. They’re in our autos, in our homes, in our computers, in our phones, and now coming to our wearables. I’ve been writing for some time that the state of imaging has completely shifted: it’s no longer about hardware (cameras) and services (photo developing and printing). The Japanese missed a big shift in the latter that impacts the former. Yes, we still want cameras, but the services business changed completely, and we want those services on our other devices (phones, tablets, computers, etc.). Ask yourself this: what camera company has really given you much in the way of useful services on any of those devices?
So, let’s welcome Snap to the camera makers. And let’s hope that the Japanese camera makers see the error of their ways and invest heavily on the software side of things soon. Because that’s where the innovation is pushing imaging now. As much as we all lust over new hardware with specs that were unthinkable a decade ago, we really don’t have any outlets for 50mp, 16-bit ProPhotoRGB color images, nor is that what most of the market is demanding. Heck, we’re still using sneaker net techniques to just get the image from camera to computer.