THE BLOG
01/29/2015 11:21 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Snapchat is Taking Risks it Doesn't Have to, and That's Impressive

Peter Macdiarmid via Getty Images

Snapchat just dropped a big-time update. It's an extremely ambitious and aggressive move, and I was blown away by their guts given that the product was working so well already.

Many successful mobile apps make small adjustments and focus on growing their user base until they get bought out. I believe that's because making an app that people love to use and love to use all the time is incredibly difficult and delicate. On mobile, you have very little real estate to work with. Your product has to be simple, useful and sexy all at once. That almost never happens. Just look at how many apps you use every day versus how many are created and raise money. Up to now, only a product with very few users could afford to make such radical changes overnight as Snapchat.

It took me a while to notice all the updates. When I navigated to the discover page, I ended up watching the entire 25-minute VICE piece on the old Japanese man who lives alone and naked on a deserted island on my phone, forgetting that I was draining the remainder of my monthly data. I never watch TV, but here the experience felt so immersive that I was sucked in like at the movies.

I try out a lot of apps and have never seen anything that flows as nicely between video, photo and text on mobile. I actually felt love when using the product. Josh Elman, famous product-lover and investor put it perfectly: "discover is what media looks like when it is designed by mobile natives for mobile natives. Nothing else comes close." Compare this with other content/news aggregators or even to Twitter where you're always tapping on a link and a new screen annoyingly pops up. More than ever, all of those other mobile experiences feel very much as relics of the past. They belong in museums. Snapchat is the only thing that feels new.

Snapchat have also done something else amazing in this big release which is that they've included themselves among the content providers, as a legitimate channel snuggly lodged between the Daily Mail, Comedy Central, ESPN and National Geographic. They have crowned themselves as a new authority, most likely heading for the music label ambition that we heard about during the Sony Leaks. I wouldn't be surprised if the Snapchat channel is where they are going to feature up-and-coming artists.

I do have a few concerns though. Evan Spiegel has repeatedly expressed his admiration for companies like Tencent which owns WeChat and which use messaging as an entry point to becoming platform apps that do a bunch of things and have in-app transactions. That's interesting and original, but so far the apps that have continued to thrive at least here in the U.S. have focused on doing one thing well. That's it. The boldest things we've seen are Tinder's moments and Instagram's one-to-one messaging and those both failed.

Snapchat is becoming a very complex, deep product. They initially rocketed because there was no faster, more lightweight way of sending a photo. Now their new content channels are hard to find all the way to the right of the app. I don't know how often I'll go there. Snapchat could very easily have kept the same story format to test out their CNN, VICE and other channels and see if people actually want to watch this type of content on the app. Yes it is a great way of monetizing and Facebook discovered the same thing, but is it what people actually want? Do I open Snapchat with the idea of watching shows and reading stories? I don't know. Facebook and Snapchat have now both realized that there is lots of money to be made from media. The main difference is that Facebook was web first and that the Facebook apps are split up. Messaging is one entire app.

Snapchat is mapping new territory. It's still just as easy to take and share photos, but not all features are as intuitive. I'm incredibly impressed by the risks they're taking because they don't have to. Maybe they will prove to us that a unified complex mobile app can exist, that includes messaging, posting stories, chatting with friends, watching shows, reading news and sending money all gracefully.