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.