For all of the praise and TechCrunch posts telling developers to iterate, iterate, iterate, Instagram, easily the face for mobile startup success stories, has largely stayed away from this philosophy. To constantly iterate is certainly good advice in our current culture. Tech moves fast - if something doesn’t stick, it’s better to find something that does than to keep refining a product no one wants. On the other hand, this has lead to countless instances of PR spun pivots. Just last week, Airtime, from celebrity entrepreneurs Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker of Napster fame, made changes that don’t seem to fully align with their original product. And of course, there’s Color, the infamously far too well funded startup that only casually resembles its original product anymore, and they’re still yet to gain traction.
Instagram was able to avoid the chicken-and-egg problem of social startups by being something far more natural. While a social experience made the app better, even without it, Instagram turned out a great product for the user. Though Instagram is less than two years old, it’s still had a relatively careful development. Last week Instagram hit their third milestone release, but, like version 2.0, Instagram 3.0 doesn’t bring much new. Version 2.0 was more of a major refinement than anything else, and this newest update, aside from one headline feature, comes largely with the same philosophy. Both of these updates added smart, useful polish to a fine experience. There’s been no feature glut.
This newest version brings perhaps the most distinct feature addition yet. What Instagram calls a Photo Map is all too straightforward and simple. It takes the existing geotags of photos and overlays them onto Google Maps. It’s a slick implementation, and we see representative clusters of photos fly apart as we zoom closer in to a location. It’s the equivalent of Facebook’s timeline. It creates a way to explore your photo history independent from time. While this idea is nothing new (Apple’s iPhoto has been doing this for some time now), the presentation creates a great response, and the ability to view other users locations so clearly is brilliant.
The Photo Map is a tentative step into location. However, what’s most interesting about this move is that by taking on the basics first (that is, gathering a user base) Instagram may be on its way to solving a problem countless startups (Color included) have failed to do. There have been plenty of attempts to create location or event based photo streams, and it seems that in the future, this could easily be in the works for Instagram. Right now, aside from the previously present feeds dedicated to tagged locations, there’s no way to view public photos in a given area. Even so, what experience there is is deeply charming, and broadening this would muffle other competitors in the space.
This all points out the strength of Instagram’s approach. As much as incubators, startup-style companies, and a quick to iterate mindset can bring about smart results, there’s a lot to be said for making a product that delivers immediate content for the user. Instagram may seem inherently social, but its initial social success came more through Twitter and Facebook than their own network. All of the failed (and currently trying) apps that worked to take on location based social photography clearly had the right idea. What they’ve all learned is that outside of San Francisco (if that), there was little reason to use their product. It’ll be exciting to watch Instagram move further into this space, and maybe everyone else interested will focus more on building a product than an empty network before getting funding.
As usual, when Apple puts on a keynote, they deliver something exciting in a way no other company right now can really match. They showed off a number of products last Monday, perhaps the most notable being a MacBook Pro with a high resolution display. It’s a bit pricy now, but the reviews have been rolling in, and it’s a powerful machine. Of course, this technology will be more exciting as it proliferates throughout the extent of their notebook line (and competitors as well). Aside from this, Apple showed off the next version of their mobile operating system, iOS 6. There’s some great tweaks and features in there including turn by turn navigation, expanded abilities for Siri, and finally some Facebook support. Apple also announced a new app called Passbook, and though it may only seem to be a minor feature, this could be the trojan horse of something much much larger.
On the surface, Passbook is a simple, if not elegant collection of your gift cards and tickets. Plenty of apps have worked on this already, though none with such a fine UI (Passbook may be a bit skeuomorphic, but it doesn’t rely on standard fare UI elements, which is a notable departure for an Apple app that may foreshadow what’s to come - but this is another discussion). Passbook will likely have traction for several reasons. It solves a real problem of simplifying one’s wallet. Equally importantly, it’s on everyone’s phone, which means that companies will jump to support it. Finer yet, it can work in the background in a way other apps can’t. This means that when you walk by your favorite coffee shop, their icon will pop up reminding you that you have money left on your gift card. What company wouldn’t want their logo showing up when you’re in their vicinity?
This seems simple then. It holds your gift cards, your tickets for movies, planes, and events. But it’s likely that this is only the tip of what Passbook can become. There’s a major, largely fruitless battle occurring right now over the mobile wallet. Google has Google Wallet, and AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have partnered to create Isis. These all revolve around special chips in your phone, and of course, support by wherever it is you’d like to pay. Neither of these solutions have seen much success. There’s a lot of friction here. You’re giving users a solution to something they haven’t looked for. They don’t want to pay with their cell phone because it’s no more convenient for them. They have to set up their cell phone and then find a place that it actually works.
Apple is yet to touch the mobile payment space, but it’d be surprising for that to go on indefinitely. Instead, Passbook could one day evolve into something of the sort. It’s a natural way to acclimate users with taking their phone out at the register. Add in a loyalty system and the phone will come out every time. Combine this with over 200 million iTunes accounts with credit cards on file, and suddenly there’s no friction in getting the phone out to pay.
It may be a long way from it, but Passbook might just be Apple’s tentative steps into the mobile wallet space. They’re starting with what you’ve already purchased, and this is the smartest place to begin. There’s no reason for a consumer not to use Passbook, it only makes life easier. From there, the potential for expansion is increasingly clear, especially with the background location checks (on another note, if Apple can do background location like this, then what of an eventual API for apps like Highlight?). It’ll be interesting to watch how this evolves. If they truly intend to beat out these companies individual apps, features like loyalty points and buying credits or whatnot will be necessary. Features like these can only make Passbook evolve into a much more serious app than what it’s showing with these playful beginnings.
It’s been a long time since Yahoo has done anything notable. Wednesday afternoon, with a product video that looked like it was produced for a cheap Kickstarter, Yahoo unveiled Axis. Axis is a multi platform strategy to put Yahoo (that is, Bing’s search, Yahoo’s name) front and center. It’s not necessarily brilliant, but it might just be the first example of a major company trying to move toward what’s next for search rather than making the obvious next step.
Axis lives in two places, mobile and desktop, and it automatically syncs between the two. Right now it’s only an extension on the desktop. It’s a smart move, as users can use Axis without having to switch browsers, which removes a lot of friction from adopting the service. Ease of use is Axis’s broader goal. Axis is essentially a glorified search box, but it subverts the traditional search results page by displaying large images of the results in a side to side scrolling format. This is a big move - Yahoo isn’t making any money here. Instead, they’re taking a risk to gain users, which in the long run is the right move. More importantly, removing the search results page is likely the first step in the future of search. It can’t answer your questions just yet, but it makes search, particularly on mobile much smoother.
There are issues however. The idea as a whole isn’t much more than a browser extension that we might have seen five or more years ago. The only notable aspect is that it’s a major player pushing it, which also means it’ll have a direct access to their technology which can help to build a stronger product. The iOS app is solid, and seems to run as well as Safari (which is all we can ask for, given that iOS browsers can only be Safari with a skin on it). It fact, it seems more fluid in a lot of ways than Safari. The search function is smart, tab switching and bookmark access is much quicker, and the ability to sync tabs between desktop and mobile makes one wonder why Safari can’t do this yet. The only gripe might be that Axis leaves a small black bar at the top of the webpage that the user can drag down to reveal the search interface. It’s nice not having to scroll all the way up like on Safari, but on mobile, wasting screen space like that is far more noticeable. On the desktop, right now Axis is essentially just a toolbar. It’s unfortunate it can’t plug in to the actual address bar. Instead, Axis lives in a thin black bar on the bottom of the screen, which isn’t quite going to sell anyone on using it. It’s too bad - tighter integration could make it a far more compelling product.
Either way, it’s good to see Yahoo finally do something. Someone is going to revolutionize search once again, and no one has done too much interesting in the space as of late. Bing implemented a pretty smart bar on the right side of it’s search results that displays relevant information trying to remove steps for the user. Google quickly implemented nearly the same thing.
Yesterday, Facebook finally released their Camera app, which was a long time coming. It’s a little later than it perhaps should have come, but it’s clear that this isn’t a competitor to Instagram (particularly given that Facebook now owns Instagram), though it will hopefully invoke some friendly rivalry. Facebook has been making a number of tweaks lately. The main mobile app saw a redesigned feed that’s much nicer to read, and images are displayed larger than before so that it’s no longer necessary to open them to actually get a sense of what they are (it also displays the full photo, unlike Timeline on the desktop site, which crops to a square around any face it detects, which is an odd choice given the difference in screen real estate). It’s not necessarily a beautiful app just yet, but it’s looking much more polished.
The Camera app is impressive, even if it doesn’t make as much sense within Facebook’s ecosystem. We see all of our friends’ photos within the main app, making Camera a repetitive experience. It is however a much more useful way to upload photos to Facebook, and it does include a number of filters and the ability to tag friends (which will hopefully get to Instagram eventuality). More important is the fact that this is an elegantly made app. There are some great new UI elements. There are subtle overlays on the bottom of the photos for comments and likes. Your camera roll is located at the top, and by dragging the feed down, it gives quick access to uploading your photos in batch. Comments pop up quickly in a speech bubble, and can be closed by dragging it down. It also runs extremely smooth and quick. Everything pops up immediately, and photos display a low quality place holder as you scroll down and quickly pop into their full quality as you approach them. Additional photos in an album peak in from the side, and it’s only a matter of swiping over to see them. It’s a huge improvement from the main mobile app, and hopefully we’ll see these stylings make their way over.
It’s exciting seeing these companies trying to capture market share by putting out solid products. For Yahoo, it’s a response to the last decade. For Facebook, it’s a matter of recognizing the mobile engagement is the future, which they certainly realize. Moreover, their recent design improvements are likely a response to Google’s updated Google+ app, which ought to have embarrassed Facebook just a bit. Camera isn’t going to be as disruptive as Messenger, but these single serve apps are surprisingly important to their strategy, and Camera is well made enough that it ought to increase interaction. As for Axis, perhaps we’ll be seeing a full browser soon. Regardless, it’s nice to see something slightly different from a major player (if Yahoo can still be considered that). Google copies Bing, Bing copies Google. Answer engines like Wolfram Alpha are what will eventually beat them all.
Yesterday afternoon Google put out something of a surprise: a redesigned Google+ app for iOS. Google is notorious for putting out iOS apps that range from mediocre to careless. Late last year Google finally (after over four years of iOS’s existence) put out a native Gmail app for the platform. It’s biggest selling point was Push, except that on launching the application, every single user received an error message (which is generally considered a poor UX), and Push didn’t work. Several months later, Sparrow beat the Gmail team to releasing a quality email app. So when Google launches a new iteration of its Google+ app on iOS before it launches on Android, there’s a lot to say. The most surprising thing: it might be pretty good.
The design of the new app looks stellar. It’s clearly designed to be mobile first, rather than as a mobile access point of a broader experience. There’s no sign of iOS styled navigation (although Apple’s recently ubiquitous gray linen makes an appearance). The navigation seems to be elegantly placed within the interface. Most important here is how it stacks up against Facebook’s app, and it seems like Google+ is taking the lead. Even the profile pages, which seem to be stealing Facebook’s cover image concept, seem better displayed. Facebook’s mobile app frames individual elements separately, whereas in Google+ they are cleanly presented in big font. All of the content is presented large, which is important when you’re staring at a tiny screen - even a nice one. Facebook’s app is thorough, but it’s clearly only a mobile approximation of the greater experience. Google seems to have taken a hint from Path and other hot mobile first social apps and created an experience that thrives on mobile and mobile’s strengths. Here we have a platform rich with data and means of interaction and yet they’re only loosely taken advantage of.
Equally notable is the iOS first launch. Google notes that an Android update is only a few weeks away, but it must be clear even to them that ignoring iOS is a losing strategy. More importantly, app adoption on iOS is far stronger than on Android. If Google wants to increase Google+’s use and user base, dominating on the dominant platform is the right decision. Or maybe even Google finds coding for iOS easier…
It will be interesting to see how apps like Path or even non-social apps like Clear begin to impact mobile design. Users are becoming more familiar and comfortable with the platforms, and sticking to designs with little difference from a meant-for-mobile website simply isn’t engaging. Facebook has on many occasions discussed how they see mobile as the future. A significant portion of their engagement is through mobile, and that will only grow. Focusing on the device your user is always with is the right strategy. Facebook has noted that moving forward, their work on mobile will increase, and that they see it as becoming a far more significant focus of their efforts. Surprisingly, Google seems to have beat them to creating a more engaging mobile experience. One has to wonder if Google’s recent acquisition of the talented Milk team had anything to do with this. For either party, Path might be worth picking up simply for their design efforts. After this, we ought to be due for something interesting coming out of Facebook.
In just over a year, Instagram has amassed an impressive user base of over 30 million - and only on the iPhone. Yesterday, Instagram finally launched for Android. The app is nearly identical, lacking only a few small features. But this is more important for the Instagram community as a whole than simply for owners of Android phones. Instagram has succeeded wildly in an over saturated marked - over saturated with photo editors, photo filters, photo albums, over saturated with micro social networks and mobile only social networks, not to mention the big players. It’s easy to see why this is and how Instagram already has the ball rolling. Now with their expansion to Android, they can ride the momentum.
Social networks have an inherent problem for adopters. There’s no reason to use it if no one you know is on it. Of course, many have come to surpass this hurdle, but many many more have failed. The App Store is littered with mobile only social networks that have received only the slightest of press coverage. Even hot apps like Path and Highlight are hard sells outside of San Francisco - the tech press seems to ignore that there are areas lacking ‘obvious’ things like heavy Twitter use, let alone smart phone saturation.
Instagram provides more than a social network. As much as they want us to treat it like a rigorous network, it isn’t, at least not first and foremost. Instagram allowed for heavy adoption, because even without other friends on the service, the app still generated a product for users: photographs that looked good. Allowing for easy sharing to Twitter and Facebook proliferated Instagram’s clear style. You can tell an Instagram photo apart from anything else. In this way Instagram has been able to gain its massive installation of users. People can see why they should get Instagram. A few acquaintances being on Path is hardly a compelling argument.
Instagram’s social aspect is good and well, but the company wants it to be the app’s main focus going forward. Now it can be. Instagram has been opened up to nearly every smartphone owner. It doesn’t need this social aspect to succeed, but a stream littered with photos is a joy to browse through. It’s a different medium than Facebook or Path. With the certain coming influx of Android users, the social aspect is bound to become a powerful player.
It’s understandable that it took Instagram’s small team so long to bring about an Android app. Now that they have, the lack of a web interface is even more noticeable. It’s a bit bizarre that we’re unable to browse others’ profiles on anything but the tiny phone app. There isn’t even a way to navigate through a user’s previous photos without a direct link. The team’s dedication to quality is evident, but when so many third parties have managed something using Instagram’s API, even a simple interface would be fine for now. Much has been made of these mobile-first social networks. It certainly makes a lot of sense to design around the device you have at all times. But your phone isn’t necessarily what you spend most of your time on. Something is sure to be in the pipeline. Impressively, the absence doesn’t hurt Instagram - it just doesn’t help.
It’ll be exciting to watch Instagram’s expansion during their second year. They’ve built up a strong reputation. They have a great core product, and the social element is about to grow significantly stronger. If they already aren’t, Instagram is about to become the first big success in the mobile-first social space - and that’s a lot harder than filtering a photograph.