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Snapchat’s plan to put its camera in every app on your phone

At its annual Partner Summit, Snap announced lots of new stuff. One feature, called Camera Kit, could take Snapchat from a fun app to part of internet infrastructure.

Snap Camera Kit

With Snap's new Camera Kit, developers can use Snap's camera in any app they want.

Photo: Courtesy of Snap

The people who run Snapchat don't see the app the way others do. Some see Snapchat as a messaging service like WhatsApp or Signal, or a social media platform like Twitter or Facebook. But if you ask Snap executives? Snapchat is a camera. And the way they think Snapchat is going to win is by getting that camera in front of as many people as possible. Even if it happens outside of Snapchat.

On Wednesday, at the company's annual Partner Summit, Snap executives announced lots of new stuff for the app's 229 million daily active users (more in America than Twitter and TikTok combined, the company made sure to note). There were new shows for Snapchat Discover, mini apps inside chat windows, and games you can play with your Bitmoji. The company is even redesigning Snapchat slightly, to make the app easier to navigate for new users.

But the most important announcement, the one that says the most about how Snap sees itself and its future, is called Camera Kit. The new service allows developers to pull much of the Snapchat camera into their own apps — interface, lenses and all.

Snap said it's planning to start small. Thanks to Camera Kit, users will be able to take pictures of themselves at a baseball game (if they're ever allowed in a stadium again) with an MLB lens, in the MLB Ballpark app. Or add fun lenses to their video chats in the Squad app. As with anything, Snap likes to build slowly. But it has big long-term ambitions.

Snap has said for years that the future of communication will unfold through the camera, which in the era of nonstop video chatting feels more true than ever. From selfies to lip-sync videos to quickly disappearing stories to endless Zoom meetings, images are indeed becoming as core to communication as typing in a text box.

What Snap is attempting to do with Camera Kit is similar to Google putting a search bar into your browser, Amazon integrating Alexa into your sound system, or YouTube using embed codes to become the internet's default video player.

The company said it assumes users will come to Snapchat to talk with their friends, but sees many other uses for cameras and AR that will happen outside Snapchat's walls. Snap wants to power all of it. It wants to be more than an app; it wants to embed itself in the infrastructure of the internet.

Developers who integrate Snap's camera system get access to the company's years of camera design and tech, avoiding the burden of starting from scratch. They also get access to every lens created in Lens Studio, which one company spokesperson called "the largest platform for AR usage in the world." Developers can create their own lenses or let users access the ones already in the store. And every developer that joins strengthens Snap's position as, effectively, the app store for AR.

Snap already has a small version of the Camera Kit feature: its Snap Camera desktop app, which brings lenses into any video chat. On Snap's most recent earnings call, CEO Evan Spiegel said downloads of Snap Camera had multiplied by more than 30 in recent months, with people sheltering at home over COVID-19. Camera Kit goes a step further, bringing the entire Snapchat experience into the app.

Not long ago, all of this would've seemed impossible. Snapchat was built to be a fun, pristine place away from the horrors of the rest of the internet. But in recent years, as Instagram has taken that idea, ripped it out of Snapchat's grasp and blown Snap's user numbers away, Snap has embraced a much wider approach.

It's not fighting one-on-one with Instagram, or trying to convince developers to build stuff just for the Snapchat community. Rather, the company is seeking to marshal the resources and power of the rest of the tech world. It's a bit like what Google did to Apple: Instead of trying to make a phone better than the iPhone, it managed to power every other device on the market.

Snap's ambitions for the camera don't stop at communication, either. "I think the most important step here is for augmented reality to become more of a utility," Spiegel told CNBC earlier this year. He spoke of lenses that would let people virtually try on makeup or shoes. At the Partner Summit, the company announced AR lenses built to identify plants or dog breeds, and to add virtual artwork all over a city. And developers will be allowed to run their own machine-learning models in lenses, which will make shoes and makeup and all those other ideas possible.

If Snap pulls this off, Snapchat's camera could become much bigger than Snapchat itself, and change the way users think about apps. Developers would build lenses and features for Snap's camera, which would then work in their app — as well as every other app that uses Snap's camera. Users wouldn't need to remember which is their diet-tracking app, which is their song-identifying app and which is the one they use for sending dumb selfies to their friends.

They'd just open any camera on their phone — and someday on their glasses, watches and super-smart contact lenses — and start snapping.

Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Better Zoom calls, simpler email attachments, smart iPhone cases and other patents from Big Tech.

Turning your stories into images.

Image: USPTO/Microsoft

Hello and welcome to 2021! The Big Tech patent roundup is back, after a short vacation and … all the things … that happened between the start of the year and now. It seems the tradition of tech companies filing weird and wonderful patents has carried into the new year; there are some real gems from the last few weeks. Microsoft is trying to outsource all creative endeavors to AI; Apple wants to make seat belts less annoying; and Amazon wants to cut down on some of the recyclable waste that its own success has inevitably created.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

People

Beeper built the universal messaging app the world needed

It's an app for all your social apps. And part of an entirely new way to think about chat.

Beeper is an app for all your messaging apps, including the hard-to-access ones.

Image: Beeper

Eric Migicovsky likes to tinker. And the former CEO of Pebble — he's now a partner at Y Combinator — knows a thing or two about messaging. "You remember on the Pebble," he asked me, "how we had this microphone, and on Android you could reply to all kinds of messages?" Migicovsky liked that feature, and he especially liked that it didn't care which app you used. Android-using Pebble wearers could speak their replies to texts, Messenger chats, almost any notification that popped up.

That kind of universal, non-siloed approach to messaging appealed to Migicovsky, and it didn't really exist anywhere else. "Remember Trillian from back in the day?" he asked, somewhat wistfully. "Or Adium?" They were the gold-standard of universal messaging apps; users could log in to their AIM, MSN, GChat and Yahoo accounts, and chat with everyone in one place.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

People

Google's union has big goals — and big roadblocks

Absence of dues, retaliation fears and small numbers could pose problems for the union's dream of collective bargaining, but Googlers are undeterred.

Recruiting union members beyond the early adopters has had its challenges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

When the Alphabet Workers Union launched with more than 200 Googlers at the beginning of the year, it saw a quick flood of new sign-ups, nearly quadrupling membership over a few weeks. But even with the more than 710 members it now represents, the union still stands for just a tiny fraction of Google's more than 200,000 North American employees and contractors. The broader Alphabet workforce could prove difficult to win over, which is a hurdle that could stand in the way of the group's long-term ambitions for substantive culture change and even collective bargaining.

The initial boom of interest from Googlers was thrilling for Alex Peterson, a software engineer and union spokesperson. "It's really reinvigorating what it means to actually be a community of Googlers, which is something that's been eroding over the past four or five years, or even longer."

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

The current state-of-the-art quantum computers are a tangle of wires. And that can't be the case in the future.

Photo: IBM Research

The iconic image of quantum computing is the "Google chandelier," with its hundreds of intricately arranged copper wires descending like the tendrils of a metallic jellyfish. It's a grand and impressive device, but in that tangle of wires lurks a big problem.

"If you're thinking about the long-term prospects of quantum computing, that image should be just terrifying," Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel, told Protocol.

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Dan Garisto
Dan Garisto is a freelance science journalist who specializes in the physical sciences, with an emphasis on particle physics. He has an undergraduate degree in physics and is based in New York.
Election 2020

Google says it’s fighting election lies, but its ads fund them

A new report finds that more than 1,600 brands, from Disney to Procter & Gamble, have advertisements running on sites that push pro-Trump conspiracy theories. The majority of those ads are served by Google.

Google is the most dominant player in programmatic advertising, but it has a spotty record enforcing rules for publishers.

Photo: Alex Tai/Getty Images

Shortly after November's presidential election, a story appeared on the website of far-right personality Charlie Kirk, claiming that 10,000 dead people had returned mail-in ballots in Michigan. But after publishing, a correction appeared at the top of the story, completely debunking the misleading headline, which remains, months later, unchanged.

"We are not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual," the correction, which quoted Michigan election officials, read.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
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