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.
I’d been wondering what happened to the leaked photo app that Facebook was working on earlier in the year, but it seems that they had other things in mind. Instagram, which previously had declined Facebook’s offer, is now theirs. Instagram had made it sound like they were determined to succeed on their own. Apparently they were being courted by Google as well, but Facebook seems like a better place for the company, and it seems like they’ll still have the chance to find their own success.
Facebook is leaving Instagram to exist separate of their core product. It’s a smart move on Facebook’s part. Instagram is already a strong brand, and after only one year. It’s saying a lot that compared to Facebook’s brand strength, Instagram is worth keeping around. Instagram seemed to hope to monetize by eventually promoting brand photos (such as Banana Republic or Burberry who already use the service) into users’ feeds. It could work well with the natural experience of the app, proving unobtrusive and unique to the medium. Now with Facebook behind them, Instagram has more time to forget about monetization and focus on the core experience.
Instagram has accomplished a lot with a small team, and it looks like they’ll have a chance to continue their philosophy. Overall, this is a great development for users of both products. In particular, Instagram will now have the ability to devote more resources all around, but without becoming jumbled and enveloped by the larger entity that is Facebook. It’s the same relationship Google has with YouTube, but here the products are far more closely related. YouTube supplements Google, whereas Instagram compliments Facebook (and however fine of a job you find YouTube to be doing, I think we can agree it’s best that it didn’t become Google Video).
If anything, Instagram can benefit from deeper Facebook integration. The announcement promises that Instagram will remain open to other networks as it is now, but it’s hard to imagine the companies won’t take advantage of their new relationship. A Timeline app and built in tagging would make Instagram far more powerful for a Facebook user (that is: almost everyone). It currently doesn’t import location data either, which is an area that Facebook is interested in, and only vaguely finding success.
Would a photo-only-mobile-micro-social-network have succeeded in the long run? If one can, it was Instagram. Perhaps a Twitter-for-photos has been prematurely consumed by Facebook, but with the way the two companies are working the deal, it seems like users are getting the best scenario - a trouble free Instagram, and possibilities for deep Facebook integration. It’ll be exciting to see how these companies begin their relationship, and with the pace of tech products, it won’t be a long wait.
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.