The past few years have been a roller coaster for Snapchat, the ephemeral photo-messaging service. Since it started in 2011, the company has made headlines for turning down billions from potential buyers and luring heavyweight talent from Facebook, Google, and Amazon, facing criticism over gaping security vulnerabilities, and finding itself in a legal battle over ownership of the company’s original concept.
And now the founders are hoping to transform the company’s product into something more sleek and sophisticated, a primary hub for mobile messaging. On Thursday, Snapchat began introducing a new version of its application and its features via — what else? — a Snapchat message the company sent to its users.
“The goal has always been to move beyond messaging,” Evan Spiegel, one of the company’s founders, said in an interview in New York on Tuesday. “We’re trying to take the traditional text conversation and make it better.”
Snapchat’s core service — the ability to send photo messages that disappear after a few seconds — has always centered on conveying a feeling, saying a quick hello, or showing friends what you are up to in a brief, lightweight, and informal visual status update. The revamped Snapchat is intended to deepen those interactions with a feature that lets people trade text messages and the ability to have a real-time video conversation and easily switch between those modes within the main Snapchat application.
“If I’m walking around and want to show you something, why do I have to switch apps?” Spiegel said. “It stops the conversation and makes it a transaction, rather than free-flowing.”
The video-chatting feature works on WiFi and cellular connections. Spiegel said the company did not do much testing around data consumption, which is usually heavy when video is involved.
“We spent most of our time looking at experience and what happens if the transmission gets degraded,” he said. “We prioritized the audio, so that even if the video gets fuzzy, you can still hear the other person.”
Spiegel said the new version of Snapchat is meant to closely mimic the way people interact and have conversations offline and in person. For example, the new app includes a feature called “presence,” which shows when friends are online and available to trade messages or jump into a video conversation.
Snapchat’s last major update arrived in October, with a feature called Stories that lets people post some of their Snapchats publicly, for all of their friends using the application to see. (Most Snapchats are sent to one or a handful of friends.) Spiegel declined to comment on the number of people using its service, but he said that it now shuttles more than 700 million messages back and forth each day.
Comscore, a mobile and Web analytics firm, said that in February, Snapchat attracted 20 million people to its mobile application, up from 4.5 million a year ago.
Snapchat raised a $50 million Series C round of venture capital funding in December, and although Spiegel said that the costs of running Snapchat, which is now a 70-person company, were high, he declined to give specifics about whether the company was looking to raise additional money.
Snapchat caused something of a frenzy in the tech world as investors and entrepreneurs began to grasp the size of the appetite — and potential market — for new ways to exchange messages on a mobile phone. The competition has only sharpened since then, and other mobile messaging products have sold for even larger amounts than Snapchat was offered.
Facebook in particular has chased after messaging companies, agreeing to pay up to $20 billion to buy WhatsApp. Facebook has also introduced a version of private and direct messaging on Instagram, and it recently released its own sleeker and more visual version of its chat application, Messenger.
But Spiegel said he believed Snapchat was ultimately creating a different kind of experience from its rivals.
“Messaging apps are focused on the number of types of content that you can send,” he said. “We are focused on what you are sending and how.
“This is really what we think mobile conversations should be,” he added.