Facebook is lining up its developers to destroy Snapchat

Start the line here, please.
Start the line here, please.
Image: AP Photo/Noah Berger
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At Facebook’s F8 developer conference today, Mark Zuckerberg spoke expansively about the future of communication—how it would be more visual; how we could leave digital markers in physical spaces for friends and strangers; how the lines between physical and digital were beginning to blur.

Using these as guidelines, you end up with something that looks a lot like Snapchat. Facebook, of course, would love to bury the idea that it’s just copying the “camera company.“ And now it’s turning to the one weapon that Snap—the five-year-old startup fresh off an IPO—has never wanted to cultivate: developers.

Today, Facebook launched a closed beta today for AR Studio, a set of tools it will slowly release for outside developers to build augmented-reality applications for Facebook. Developers will be able to more easily build programs that live inside Facebook’s camera, like selfie filters, informational tags or art associated with real world objects, and games, according to Facebook’s keynote presentation. Since the beta is closed, you can’t log in and try it yourself today, but Facebook is accepting applications.

Developers are part of what makes Facebook such a useful platform: Using Facebook to sign into other applications like Tinder and AirBnB saves people time and allows them to present themselves in a unified way across the internet. Farmville and Words With Friends became synonymous with addictive online gaming on the platform. They were all things that kept you inside Facebook’s world.

Snap, on the other hand, has been resistant to letting developers make custom filters or effects for its app. It went to great lengths to keep third-party developers from building unofficial apps that could save images sent through the service, executives told Backchannel in 2015, citing privacy concerns.

“We never wanted third-party apps on our platform,” Snap VP of engineering Tim Sehn said. “We have created a product where it is more critically important than ever before that we control the end user experience. We’ve made commitments to our users.”

Now, Snapchat’s system of closed, curated content will face off against Facebook’s open marketplace.

While Facebook will develop some AR applications itself, the move could backfire: bots and VR haven’t made much of a splash within the developer community. VP of messaging David Marcus even alluded to the trouble his platform has had with bots during his keynote speech.

“I’m glad we called it a beta,” Marcus said. “We got a lot of attention for opening our platform, and then right after we got a lot of attention for all the work we still needed to do.”

Bots required expertise that most brands didn’t have, and required an entirely different way of thinking about social-media strategy. There really wasn’t any good use case at the time, either—Facebook’s big bot reveal was a cat that told you the weather.

But augmented reality could be different, as Snapchat has already defined what some of these features can be, like novelty beards or objects that hover around a user’s head. They can be used by brands to advertise events or products, or deployed to celebrate holidays.

Facebook also has the advantage of being in people’s lives all the time. For instance, stickers that say “Like us on Facebook” adorn countless coffee shops and small businesses in the US—it’s easy to imagine pointing your smartphone camera at a sticker and the business’ Facebook page appearing in mid-air.

In some ways, this could be the test of whether Snapchat is unique in its ability to build its user interface on the camera, or merely the first. If Facebook users and developers flock to this platform that offers greater flexibility and control over how it’s used, Snap could be in trouble.

“It seems so basic, maybe you look at it and think ‘Oh this is just what the kids are into today,'” Zuckerberg said at the keynote today. “We look at it and we see something different. We see the beginning of a new platform.”