Snap’s anti-developer attitude is an augmented liability

Facebook just invited outside developers to help it build an augmented reality content platform. Snapchat banned outside developers in 2015 and has never had a real platform.

Mark Zuckerberg knows he can’t anticipate everything Facebook users want, so he spent the last 10 years building APIs and viral channels for third-party app makers. Evan Spiegel seems to believe he alone can anticipate what Snapchat users want, so he’s spent the last 5 years curating limited selections of geofilters, Our Stories, Discover channels and augmented reality selfie filters.

Facebook has plenty of users to offer up from every demographic around the world, providing ample reason for developers of all styles to get on board its platform. Snap is desperately trying to hold on to its users as Facebook’s clones like Instagram Stories steal their attention, and it’s highly centralized around finicky American teens.

Facebook unveils AR Studio for allowing outside developers to contribute augmented reality experiences

These differences in history, management style and resources have suddenly come into focus with yesterday’s beta launch of Facebook’s augmented reality Camera Effects platform. It hopes developers will contribute entertaining face filters, overlaid information utilities, interactive games and psychedelic art for users to play with.

Previously, social networks were focused around users’ lives, their devices and their friends. Augmented reality makes social networks increasingly about the physical world around us.

And the world is a big, empty place if you’re trying to fill it with augmented reality by yourself.

Which is what Snapchat will have to try to do unless it rethinks its policies and approach. Back in 2014, prohibited unofficial third-party apps were popping up around Snapchat, offering to help you save people’s photos that were supposed to disappear. But without a formal platform, users logged into these other apps with their real Snapchat usernames and passwords.

Then one of those apps, Snapsaved, was breached, and reams of user credentials and surreptitiously stored content fell into the hands of hackers. Snap reiterated its ban on third-party apps, and told people it would shut down their accounts if they used them.

In 2015 a more reputable, venture-backed startup called Mindie was letting people add popular music soundtracks to their Snapchat Stories posts. Citing security concerns, not that it could eventually compete with native features, Snapchat shut down Mindie’s ability to post to Stories and reset the passwords of all its users.

Mindie let you post videos with soundtracks to Snapchat Stories until Snap shut it down

Currently, Snap’s terms of service declare “You will not use or develop any third-party applications that interact with the Services or other users’ content or information without our written consent.” Snap did not respond to requests for comment for this story before press time.

Snap does work with partners on the business side. They include Kenshoo for ads buying, LiveRamp for audience matching, Spredfast for ad-making tech and VaynerMedia for ad creative. But this program is much different from working with consumer-focused app and experience makers.

Instead of trying to build ways for consumer app developers to work with Snapchat, it shut them out. Facebook has had its own troubles with developers, pulling the rug out from some game companies when it shut down spammy viral channels in 2009. But since then, with initiatives like Operation Developer Love, it’s tried to strengthen its bonds with the dev community. It sees them as a way for Facebook to become entrenched as part of the basic internet infrastructure.

Facebook’s Camera Effects Platform examples

Now those relationships with developers could let Facebook offer thousands of augmented reality filters and content while Snapchat offers just dozens.

Without Facebook competing via it new platform, Snap’s highly curated style might have worked. That’s what led Snapchat from basic geofilters to acquiring Looksery to power its now iconic selfie lenses. It would have had time to home in on where the real value in AR is, but with killer AR experiences waiting to be discovered, there’s a race for a whole new arena of computing.

Snap will either need to embrace developers to help it dig, or pray that Spiegel strikes gold again by himself. Facebook already has its own mining town.