Why Apple Would Rather Have a Sticker App Than a Social Network

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On Tuesday, Apple quietly unveiled a new app, Clips. The app, a bright, playful photo- and video-editing app that lets you create FOMO fodder for social media quickly and easily on a mobile device, is a mishmash of pervasive mobile trends: artsy filters, cute stickers, subtitles. It’s not necessarily an uncharacteristic move for the increasingly less austere Apple (once you let users add lasers to their iMessages, the door is open to anything), but it’s also a bit hard to place: It looks like a social network. But where exactly is the network?

For years now, Apple has been unique among its peers in its lack of a social-network component. A quick glance at the structure of the other four members of the “fearsome five” that provide the foundation for the modern internet economy demonstrates the extent to which social networking conceptually dominates the business. Facebook, obviously, is founded on a social network; Google has turned YouTube into a hugely popular one (and there’s also Google+, lol); Microsoft, the most enterprise-focused of these giants, just acquired LinkedIn; and even Amazon purchased a large (and growing) network in video-game streaming, Twitch. Apple has nothing that remotely compares to any of these.

That’s intentional. Apple has little interest or effort in building a Facebook- or Twitter-like online platform, in part because it’s irrelevant to the company’s bottom line. Of its largest rivals, Apple is still the only company whose profits largely come from hardware sales — incredibly popular, high-margin luxury sales. This business model has affected the company’s identity in more ways than its quarterly reports: Apple has associated itself closely with security and privacy, two concepts anathematic to social networks, whose business is essentially to sell user data to advertisers. To launch a social network would mean giving up on a core corporate value — and, maybe more to the point, Apple has no ad-sales infrastructure that could support a social network even if it wanted to launch one.

The closest Apple has ever come to a social network is iMessage, its internet-messaging SMS replacement. (It’s got many of the same cutesy trappings — stickers and scribbles — that we associate with social networking and that are now on display in Clips.) But iMessage is only a social network in the loosest and most literal sense — there’s no central hub or feed or cross-pollination — and it’s important to Apple, not as a way to collect user data, but as a perk of iPhone ownership. Its convenience keeps iPhone users tied to the Appleverse.

So what, then, is the point of Clips? First and foremost, it’s an ad for iOS. Now that you can upload previously recorded media to “spontaneous” and “ephemeral” platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, Apple can sell iOS with an aesthetic by getting users to share it elsewhere. The best-case scenario for Clips is that its images become the must-have social-media accessory for networks heaviest users, teenagers — the way the app Prisma did last year. Want cool filters and stickers? You gotta own an iPhone. In the same vein, it’s a demo of neat new features that Apple already has lying around, like speech-to-text translation.

Put another way, Apple isn’t interested in creating another social network to compete with Facebook and Snapchat, but in becoming the company through which you post on every social network. If Apple can insert a new layer underneath Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, it can exert more control over its hardware and worry less about its software.

In a broader sense, Clips feels like an experiment as Apple expands outward from its hardware sales home base and into the murky depths of an area boringly called “services.” That’s stuff that Apple can charge you an eternal subscription fee for, rather than a one-time transaction. It’s why, for instance, Apple gives away their annual operating-system updates now, rather than charge for them, but also asks for a monthly fee for more than five gigabytes of iCloud storage space. It’s also why Apple has harnessed its connections to the entertainment industry in order to slowly roll out a music-streaming service — which is also a back door for a video-streaming service full of Apple-produced original content.

But cloud storage and content streaming are obvious, and highly competitive, services that Apple could offer. What comes next? For years, apps have sold filters and sticker packs as in-app purchases — and Apple is tentatively testing this in Messages right now, though it’s a dubious strategy that Snapchat tried for a couple months, selling its rotating slate of Lenses before quickly abandoning the venture.

But the point of all these Apple services is to build a subscription-service economy inside its expensive devices (you can bet that Apple Music would not be on Android if they weren’t late to the game). Apple’s not worried about its hardware going away — but it is worried that its hardware is only being used as a vehicle to browse Facebook or watch YouTube videos. Building a layer of basic and essential software applications on top of expensive hardware helps shore up its dominance.

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