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Here's how Apple could leapfrog Snapchat and make the next iPhone a must-have

Anita Balakrishnan

With an IPO under its belt this month, Snapchat (SNAP) has cleared its first major hurdle.

If Apple's smart, the next one should be in June.

That's Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, and the stakes are high to unveil something great to accompany 10th anniversary iPhone.

I'm not saying that Apple should recreate Snapchat — it doesn't have to.

By creating a better version of just one Snapchat feature — messaging — Apple (AAPL) could siphon potential Snap customers into iMessage and revive interest in the iPhone brand.

Apple has end-to-end technology

Snap's disappearing messages launched its popularity, but Lenses — which superimpose dynamic imagery onto photos — are the secret sauce.

There's an abundance of evidence that Apple can build something similar. In February, Apple received this patent on creating custom shape-shifting avatars. Tim Cook has repeatedly expressed interest in in augmented reality and may have more than 1,000 engineers working on it, according to a UBS note. Goldman Sachs thinks it will come out in the iPhone 8 later this year, and industry analyst Ben Thompson thinks the powerful camera on the iPhone 7 Plus is a dead giveaway . Analysts at JP Morgan even think the next iPhone will have facial recognition . And Apple is already adding fun effects to iMessage.

Apple can one-up Snap because it has control over the hardware. Snap's graphics are limited by the lowest quality camera and processor of the phones it runs on. Apple, on the other hand, makes its own camera and its own chips — and they're good.

Apple controls app distribution and has a developer platform at its disposal. Most of Snap's users already get it from the App Store. And iMessage, unlike Snapchat, has access to an entire ecosystem of iMessage apps. Imagine sending a Snap with an Apple Music soundtrack!

Apple's iMessage has a critical mass of high-value users

Many of Snap's most popular features aren't difficult to recreate — Facebook's copycats show that. What is difficult to replicate is Snap's highly dedicated, engaged user base.

Facebook, while accessible, long ago shed the exclusivity it had with college students. Snap's interface is minimal and cool, but opaque to some older users.

If only there were a company with both ... known for software that is intuitive, yet has a minimalist design ... software that exudes a sense of exclusivity and creativity, and has a cult following.

Oh yeah, it's Apple.

Despite Snap's popularity, teens still use SMS. CNBC's college interns tell me that iMessage's blue bubbles and "superior emojis" are considered more cool, and it's somewhat shameful to text with a green (non-Apple) message.

This is clearly something that Apple is trying to play up in their new ad, below.

Big pile of money

Snapchat has some things iMessage lacks, like a social feed and a broadcasting platform.

That's fine. Apple doesn't need to copy every Snapchat feature.

Apple may not have a social feed, but it's already got a list of all your closest friends and family members: your contacts list. Instagram's co-founder Kevin Systrom told Recode that engaging with friends and family moves the needle much more than celebrities or other content.

And Apple isn't an advertising company and doesn't need advertising dollars. It just needs to be cool enough to get people to buy an iPhone. Eventually, folks may pay for other services, like Apple Music, because they work within the app. And users wouldn't have to deal with annoying ads in their personal messages.

Apple's software endeavors haven't always been executed perfectly. But Apple can afford to revolutionize messaging without worrying about stemming a $514.64 million loss and reviving a struggling stock.

Commentary by CNBC's Anita Balakrishnan.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCOpinion on Twitter.



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