GoPro Isn’t Doomed Yet

But they must become a software company, fast

The past year has been rough for GoPro: its stock has absolutely cannonballed, now at 1/2 its IPO price and 1/8th where it topped out last summer. The start of the trouble can be attributed to the marketing and pricing failure of its last camera, the Session. But these troubles aren’t just a temporary setback for the company, they’re existential.

Hardware has never been the problem for GoPro. The Session, like all their hardware, is pretty great: it takes 1080p 60fps video, is waterproof, tiny, and weighs 2.6 ounces. As with any camera in the current market, though, it is a clever arrangement of commodity components held together by an aspirational brand.

Today good hardware makes for a dry, shallow moat.

The ten-year distance between the Session and GoPro’s first digital camera is vast. Image-capturing hardware has become miniaturized, low-power, and dirt cheap as a side-effect of the smartphone revolution. In another decade, the cost of a high-quality image-capture device will asymptotically approach zero.

Almost two years ago, two Morgan Stanley analysts played with GoPros for a couple of days, shot eight hours of footage, and created a two-minute final video they were too embarrassed to share as part of their report. They concluded that GoPro needed to spend heavily in “video editing automation.”

GoPro needs software in spades, far beyond just something to make editing easier. The company that created the first mass-market visceral experience broadcasting device ought to have a hand in every dimension of the current live revolution, not just be one of its few cameras. That requires software.

As they expand into VR cameras and drones, the same questions are raised about the video these devices will spew: How do I share this? How do I watch this? How will I find this later? How will I make this exciting? These are not questions more cameras can answer.

Most consumers already have all the hardware they need to create video; what they need is software to make this infinity of images comprehensible.

As the defensibility of hardware declines, GoPro has an advantage few other makers of software have: fans, tens or even hundreds of millions of them. Call it brand, but for many it goes much deeper than that. Thanks to years of mind-blowing, widely watched video, many of GoPro’s biggest fans don’t even own one of its devices!

I am amongst those fans, though well outside GoPro’s cadre of amateur and professional athletes. I discovered GoPro when the Hero 2 got a Wifi add-on, making it a hackable sensor. With the addition of a network, their camera became a visual capture device that could power an infinite set of software. As a hacker, I was thrilled, and have fiddled with almost every device they’ve created since.

Imagine GoPro using this fanbase as catalyst, alongside its stellar cameras, in creating software that awes those same fans. In addition to dramatically improving their existing mobile apps (which do need a lot of love), areas where its unique advantages could put GoPro on top:

  • Live streaming hub. The number of live platforms has rapidly ballooned. Everyone from media companies to bedroom guitarists wants to take advantage of this gold rush. Seamless streaming from any device to any platform is an obvious need. (GoPro has so far let the platforms build hacky integrations on top of their cameras. This equation should be reversed, with GoPro building a leading creation client, with its devices as the best—but not only—inputs.)
  • Consumer-focused VR creation. (Kolor, a recent acquisition, may be a passable piece of software for professional editing, but the world we want for something far less cumbersome and “pro” very quickly)
  • “Editing” software that aims to take the editing out of sharing video. (Google Photos Assistant has made some very mediocre forays into this. With the additional context and relatively limited use domain of GoPro cameras, you’d have a potentially easier ML corpus to start from.)

Becoming a consumer software company is a brutally difficult transformation. Software is a matter of culture and organization, not what is manufactured. Even Apple, the world’s greatest hardware company, struggles mightily to graft highly iterative software thinking (above the OS layer, where it more closely resembles hardware) into parts of its organism.

Software is hard. But GoPro has extraordinary advantages in hardware penetration and fandom that give them a fighting chance. As one of those fans, I hope they can pull it off.

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