Apple’s pre-announcement of Clips reminds me of Steve Jobs’s infamous quip to Dropbox CEO Drew Houston. From a 2011 Forbes feature:
Jobs smiled warmly as he told them he was going after their market. “He said we were a feature, not a product,” says Houston.
I’ve heard many dismiss Clips as too little, too late. A blatant attempt by Apple to weasel into the crowded market for quirky photo and video sharing apps. As a 41-year-old, I’m not sure I completely understand this field, but it appears to be dominated by Snapchat, while Facebook seems desperate to catch up and surpass them.
Where does that leave Apple? In punditry circles, the company is almost as well-known for their repeated failure to spark a fire in social networking as they are known for their successes in building highly desirable hardware and software products. Yes, products. Apple loves products, and is good at building them.
Despite constant criticism, Apple controls a pretty huge, relatively smooth-operating social network. The Apple ID single-sign-on infrastructure powers a host of social services including photo sharing, friend finding, document collaboration, shared calendars and reminders, and peripheral services such as Apple Pay that seem poised to make the leap to social when the company sees fit.
But “Apple ID” is not a catchy name for a social network, and despite its popularity among the Mac and iOS faithful, Apple makes little attempt to meaningfully bridge the gap with people who are tied into Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Weibo, whatever. These networks are enormously popular not only because users enjoy their features but because they are accessible from all popular hardware platforms. They facilitate interplatform friendship.
For a variety of reasons, the features afforded to Apple ID account-holders do not seem likely to attract non-Apple customers away from other social networks. So if Apple can’t beat ’em? Join ’em. Or rather, make it easy for Apple’s customers to participate at once in Apple-ID-powered services, and with outside social networks.
It started to appear that Apple had ceded “the social network” to other companies when they added standard share functionality to iOS and Mac. Virtually any text, image, or video on these platforms can be efficiently shared to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, or any of an unlimited number of apps installed on the device that implement support for working with the media in question. If Apple had ambitions of becoming the dominant social network for sharing any of these types of content, they would probably not be so generous in facilitating this integration with their competitors.
I think Apple wisely considers their role, as the maker of personal computers and mobile devices, as empowering users to achieve specific goals in life. Apple empowers its users to write school papers, organize photos, record a jam session, check email, surf the web, work with a spreadsheet, play games, and yes, to connect with friends and family through a variety of social networks.
To this end, any time Apple might have spent building out their own social network is better spent investing in tools that maximize users’ enjoyment of the social networks they already belong to. Rather than obsessing over the venue in which social interactions occur, Apple can profit by equipping its users to be more expressive, wherever they may roam.
If I may stretch the venue metaphor for social networks, imagine you are invited to a huge gala event. Thousands of attendees are anticipated to meet up for an epic night of dining, drinking, and social revelry. Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are dying to rent the venue, cater the snacks, and serve the drinks. All things that set the tone for where, and how, people will interact. Apple is content to sell the suit, dress, or whatever, that empowers 30% of attendees to look and feel their best.
Clips falls naturally into Apple’s long history of software that is designed to enhance the creative productivity of its customers. GarageBand empowers users to share their musicality with anybody, on any platform, who can play an audio file. Photos and iMovie do the same for visual creative works. And now Clips, recognizing the unique appeal of combining film, photography, visual effects, text, and emoji overlays, seeks to do the very same thing with a twist on the format.
Few of us wake up every morning “excited to social network.” Yet we turn to services like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat to connect with friends and strangers. We’re excited to use the chat, image sharing, file transfer, and collaboration tools that add value to the stark, cold network. Many of these tools are built and shipped by the makers of the network, while others are supplied by third parties.
Apple’s Clips appears to be a canonical example of adding value to social networks from the outside. Regardless of whether you meet your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or a network that I have never heard of, Apple is glad to have you use and app like Clips to make your experience more fulfilling and fun. Clips is the latest of many products, from Apple and from others, that empowers you to express yourself uniquely. The social network you choose to do that on is merely a feature that connects you with friends and family.