When bandwidth became free, mobile edition

One of the most remarkable parts of Snap’s S-1 (see my larger analysis here) was the explicit decision to not pursue the ‘lite’ strategy taken by Snap’s social network peers like Facebook and Twitter:

Our focus on innovative camera experiences means that many of our products are data intensive and work better on high-end mobile devices. This is because camera products involve rich formats like video, which use a lot of cellular bandwidth when used for communication and content consumption.
Additionally, our products often use technologies that demand a lot of processing power and don’t work as well on lower-end devices, like the technology behind Lenses. This means that unlike many other free mobile applications, the majority of our users tend to be located in markets with high-end mobile devices and high-speed cellular internet.

In the ‘lite’ strategy, a company takes a product that has worked well in developed markets and adapts it to work in a less developed market with slower phones and more expensive networks: our product doesn’t fit their markets, so we’ll change the product.

Snap says something different: these markets don’t fit out products so we’ll be less successful there.

But it was easier for the first generation of mobile apps like Facebook to do this without significant product compromises. The first native Twitter app and the first native Facebook shipped on smartphones approaching a decade old: they were memory constrained, CPU constrained, battery constrained. So going in reverse isn’t too difficult; it’s just optimizing today’s features on yesterday’s platform target.

The challenge for the next generation of apps (of which Snapchat is an pioneer) is that the newly missing constraint isn’t just the smartphone hardware: it’s the network.

Snapchat was the one of the first applications to pretend bandwidth was free. And in the last year, we’ve seen more and more apps begin to adopt this assumption. One example: Spotify has begun streaming related songs after a playlist ends. The experience is seamless, but also unthinkable when a megabyte costs you anything you can calculate.

Another example: my new favorite app Gixo, which puts you in a live workout class with a real instructor wherever you are. You’d create a very different (and less interesting) product if you had to cache the assets before you went on a run; assuming bandwidth is free enables a new experience.

The challenge for Snapchat, for Gixo, and for Spotify is that bandwidth isn’t free everywhere yet. And smartphone OEMs move far faster than network infrastructure operators, not to mention you can replace individual smartphone units through consumer demand before replacing the network. The poorest person can afford the richest’s person smartphone hand me down, but not so for their network.

This means we might see a forking of applications of the next few years. In developed markets, bandwidth is the newly fallen constraint that will enable new kinds of experiences that aren’t possible to translate to developing markets. In developing markets, we’ll see apps that thrive in low bandwidth environments that don’t really make sense when bandwidth is ‘free’.