Last month, Snapchat finally made its coveted Spectacles available online. Millions of Snapchat users, me included, are scooping up pairs. But what about the hundreds of millions of Instagram users out there. To me, the real question is: When is Facebook going to bring its own version of Spectacles to the masses? The answer to this question may be far more consequential than we think.
The fact is that Spectacles - called a “toy” by Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel - are a serious business weapon wrapped in neon-colored plastic. The high-tech sunglasses record 10-second snippets of video at the touch of a button. Critically, this is relayed wirelessly to the Snapchat app on your phone, allowing for frictionless, hands-free posting to the network.
Given how intensely heated the video space is, with multiple networks vying for billions of daily views, this direct pipeline to users and their videos is nothing short of brilliant. It’s also a shot across the bow of the reigning king of social media, Facebook. The question is: Do Zuckerberg and co. have a counterattack planned?
The strategy being deployed by Snapchat — locking users into a platform with a clever hardware pairing — is nothing new. Recently, Amazon tried the same approach with its failed Fire phone. Panned as a “better store than smartphone,” Fire was practically given away in the hopes that users would double down on Amazon shopping. (The company is now taking much the same tact, with better results, with its wildly popular Alexa voice assistant and Echo speaker.) Google’s new Pixel phone, not to mention Apple’s iPhone, represent variations on the same theme.
Prominent by its absence from this list of strategic hardware-software pairings is Facebook. Considering that it counts more than a quarter of humanity as its users, Facebook may not have to worry about locking people in at the moment.
But the social media space is fast-evolving, increasingly fragmented and hyper-competitive. Last year, according to some counts, Snapchat caught up with and overtook Facebook in terms of video traffic. So why hasn’t Facebook pushed a true consumer hardware pairing more aggressively until now ... and will this delay prove costly in the long run?
Facebook’s hardware past and future
To be fair, Facebook has flirted with hardware before. Back in 2013, for instance, the company released mobile software that would essentially turn an Android smartphone into a “Facebook phone,” with easy access to Facebook photos and messages right from the home screen. But Facebook Home, as the platform was known, was clunky and didn’t see much adoption. Within a year, the effort was abandoned.
And there’s certainly hardware dreams in Facebook’s future. The nearly $3 billion paid for Oculus VR back in 2014 shows the company’s commitment to building a viable virtual reality headset. The only problem is that, by Zuckerberg’s own admission, it will take another decade before VR is ready for the mass market.
In the social media world, a decade is an eternity: more than enough time for Snapchat or maybe even Google to siphon away users from Facebook with clever hardware integrations. Smart money, therefore, would suggest Facebook is already furiously at work building, copying or buying a hardware stopgap. So what gadgets might we see from Facebook in the immediate future?
Home or personal assistants are a possible starting point, especially considering that Google has now also entered the field with Google Home. Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg posted a lengthy update and video in which he shared his personal efforts to build a virtual assistant — essentially a kind of digital butler — for his own home in San Francisco. Judging from the post, however, “Jarvis” is no Alexa: there are no immediate plans to commercialize the product or even extend it beyond the Zuckerberg household.
On the other hand, given Facebook’s aggressive copying of Snapchat functionality in recent months — including the rollout of disappearing messages and Stories on Instagram — a pair of Instagram-linked Spectacles or glasses seems eminently possible. Indeed, considering that so many shareable, social-media moments happen “on the go,” wearables — like glasses or even a watch with a smart, voice-operated interface — would make a natural target for a Facebook build or buy.
If any of this is in the picture, however, Facebook is keeping tight-lipped. It’s not like the company is facing any existential threats right now. But innovators, especially ones worth north of $350 billion, are always looking ahead. Ultimately, the absence of a genuine hardware channel represents a real liability. Not only is a phone, glasses or other wearable a handy way to lock users in, it also functions as the delivery vehicle. Without hardware, a company — even one like Facebook — risks eventually being boxed out from the very consumers it’s trying to reach.
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