In August 2006, Facebook launched its developer platform. If you define a platform as an environment in which software can be executed that embeds into this environment by utilizing standard features and data provided by this platform, this may have been one of the first large-scale platforms that entered a new abstraction level: “above” hardware and “above” operating systems, building on a customer-facing software that was designed to run on a variety of computing and operating systems and, by extension, on a number of hardware devices – kind of a “meta platform”. Compared to pure Windows, Android and iOS developing for example, the grade of openness on such platforms is very high, and at the same time the abilities of such platforms are limited to the “lowest” degree of functionality that will be available on all the software and hardware it has to work on. In theory, this could mean that peak innovations may happen on more limited, specialized platforms, while their broad adaptation may happen or be accelerated through such “meta-platforms”. I believe that cameras will be the next iteration where these processes can be observed: They provide an environment in which software can be executed that utilizes standardized features and data. This may lead to an entirely new breed of “apps” as well as to a significant enhancement of many apps as we know them today. Apple is moving into this direction with its ARKit, and Facebook made its camera a platform, too.
The idea of cameras as platforms is not very new – some people may remember Stanford’s “Frankencamera” project that enabled people to create imaging applications on their Nokia N900s back in 2010. Snapchat, now nearly 6 years old, calls itself a camera company, avoiding the terms “messenger” or “social network” in their mission and company description:
Although they have not designed their camera as an open platform, the philosophy of seeing messages or stories as an extension of the camera and not the camera as a tool to use within messaging can be seen as seminal for what we are observing with cameras today. Hence, the Snapchat app starts with the camera and not with the news feed or your list of conversations. And besides PokemonGo with – still – 65mn monthly active users, Snapchat probably is the one app that introduced augmented reality features – a virtual sunglass on my face or a rainbow coming out of my mouth definitely is AR – to a mass market of users. AR will be one major driver for the use of cameras as a platform.
This great collection on BGR shows a number of demos that iOS developers have created just in the few weeks since the developer release of its newest version. For example measuring objects and distances:
Or this Hololens-style AR demo of a virtual character using real objects for its movement and positioning:
The perspective of seeing cameras as a piece of software that can be tweaked, enhanced, changed and mashed up with other things seems to take off, and even if we are starting with adding beards and sunglasses to our faces, the opportunities are endless – from making a number of “physical things” obsolete, like a measuring tape, a board game, or even a physical TV, to b2b features like having repairmen see what exactly they have to do through a camera thanks to narrow object recognition software that is designed for the specific machine they are dealing with. Not to speak of advancements in general object recognition and narrow AI that happen in parallel and will, once paired with a camera platform, probably be a decisive factor in which camera platform will be used most by developers:
As with every computing platform, reach and monetization options for developers and, along with those, built-in standard features that allow developers to concentrate on the specific use case for their software will decide over which camera will come out on top. And I guess we will be talking Facebook, Apple, Google again.
Missing Amazon here? They will probably not build a camera platform, but may be one of the companies that could benefit the most. Instead of entering product names or scanning barcodes (again a camera feature) to compare prices, search for a product or add it to your wish list, imagine just pointing your camera on a packaging or product. AliExpress, Alibaba’s international shopping app, already has a built-in image search, headlined “snap it, shop it”. Even if it’s a stone-age-like feature for now, we know where this will end up.
And for everyone else, too, cameras as a platform may be an opportunity to really shake up their industries, grab significant market share or even change “the game” they are in. Again, we are at the beginning, but this little demo of how you could buy sunglasses in a conversation with a friend on Facebook Messenger, bringing in Ray-Ban, and trying them on using the camera while showing them through a video call to your friend may give you an idea where we are when we are just scratching the surface of opportunities:
Imagine your car sharing app to open the reserved car by pointing the camera at the number plate. The hotel room door to open only when your camera from your phone is pointed at it. Again, the opportunities are endless. As always with major platforms, the question will be where to start and how to roll your features out to all significant platforms.
Apple make their case by strongly moving into AR and their camera as a platform with iOS11, which may also be an effective defense against one big threat they are facing: that many apps may become obsolete once you can reproduce all core features in a “meta platform” like Facebook Messenger. We all know that app stores as such are broken and that we only use a fraction of possibilities on our smartphones, as the system of order is nothing but a bookmark list that is easy on the eye. My theory since a long time, and I still stick to it [German link], is that our phones will at some point offer us a constant stream of bits and pieces that are pulled out of apps we have installed, or even provided by entities we gave a different form of permission to enter our screens (an app install will not be much more than a permission). Google Now is such an example, interactive notifications are another one, and messenger bots that I don’t install, but that offer app-like features and experiences, are one more. With cameras being an integral part of our daily smartphone usage, I may not have to look for an icon of an app and open it, but can access that specific feature from the camera directly, once I enabled my camera to use the data and environment necessary to perform that function. If Tripadvisor or Wikipedia would offer object recognition for tourist landmarks and embedded information about them once I point my camera to them, why would I have to open their app? I could access this feature directly from my camera.
How will this play out? What we could observe in the past was that more and more features that have been built customized by hundreds of thousands if not millions of app developers have always been moving into the platforms. In case of Messenger (and this will be the case for Facebook camera as a platform, too), ID management, friends and social relations, passwords, location and eventually payment will be integrated by default, opening up space for specialists to concentrate on features that are essential to their service. So besides figuring out features that potentially may become real competitive advantages, gaining speed in launching and distributing these, it may finally be time to rethink your whole app strategy with a perspective of one to three years. It again comes down to an advice that I have been promoting for years, based on the mechanisms that have been established in digital media through social and mobile: Your digital success will be mostly defined by your ability to design systems instead of destinations. Systems that enable you to bring your features and offers to where users are in an as-frictionless-as-possible manner, instead of spending your marketing dollar on bringing users to your destinations.