The app company has pioneered a distinctive vision of the internet
WHEN Snapchat first became popular in 2013, many thought the messaging app would disappear almost as quickly as its vanishing messages. Instead, it has become one of the most intriguing internet firms to emerge in years. When Snap, Snapchat’s parent company, goes public at an expected valuation of $20bn-25bn—the IPO is expected in March—its market debut will be the most closely watched since Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant, floated in 2014. Snap’s offering documents may be filed publicly as soon as this week.
Snapchat has captivated youngsters in the West with its quickly disappearing content and playful features. It appears to have connected with youth more successfully than older rivals such as Facebook (or its messaging service, WhatsApp). Users share digitally enhanced photos and videos of themselves vomiting rainbows and morphing their faces into animal masks. Around 41% of Americans aged 18 to 34 use the ephemeral messaging service every day, and 150m people globally spend time on it every day.
Older grown-ups should pay attention too. Snapchat is experimenting with new technologies, such as augmented reality (AR) and wearable devices. A large share of people who have used AR will have experienced it on Snapchat, where users can overlay computer-generated images on photos and videos (see article).
The firm’s IPO prospectus is expected to describe not an internet or communications company but a “camera company”. Snapchat has prospered from access to the camera on every smartphone, and now it wants to sell hardware as well. Its new sunglasses, called Spectacles, sell for $130 and enable users to record video from their exact line of sight. They have caught the attention of analysts, who are impressed by the glasses’ ambition, functionality and clean design.
How well it fares as a public company will also serve as a litmus test of whether it is possible to prosper in the shadow of digital behemoths like Facebook and Google. Snapchat has a different outlook. Facebook creates permanent records of users’ lives; Snapchat offers liberating impermanence. On most social-media sites, people post about their achievements to a huge circle of acquaintances; Snapchat’s users share images of themselves looking silly with smaller groups of friends.