App Spotlight: Instagram

For every single app that catches the collective imagination there are a hundred that sink into obscurity. And although there are some generalizations that can be made about what makes an app catch fire – it does something that makes people think about their mobile devices differently or it does something that other apps do but in a new and clever way – ultimately, it’s hard to predict what will appeal to consumers.

Instagram, a free app that resembles Twitter with photographs instead of quips, has caught on in a very big way. The app, released last November and updated in January, is closing in on three million users and has become, among other things, a home for purely populist and surprisingly artistic photography. It also boasts a growth rate faster than Twitter at this early stage.
When users sign on to Instagram initially, they are invited to find friends in the phone’s contact list and on other networks including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram’s own network. They identify a network of friends to follow and with whom they can share pictures.
Setup is painless and using the app is simple. Once pictures are imported from the phone’s camera roll, users can crop them dramatically, apply filters to create effects and then share them with Instagram friends. Users can view the pictures of contacts and can also view the site’s most popular photos. Users can share the location of all the photos they post or choose to share that information on a photo by photo basis.
The filters users can apply to alter their photographs — turning one black and white or increasing the contrast — are what Instagram nailed. Although they are fairly limited – it’s not like having Photoshop on your phone – they have inspired the latent art photographer in many users. The galleries of popular shots include an astounding variety of photographs, including simple portraits, elaborately composed still lives, abstract images, landscapes and cityscapes.
Instagram is like Flickr if it was invented in the age of social media. Why bother uploading or viewing photos on a desktop computer when your phone is always with you. What’s more, the rise of Twitpic and other Twitter photo-sharing apps showed that people want to share their lives through photos. Instagram makes it easy to do so with integration with Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.
One major downside is Instagram is only available for the iPhone. Burbn, the company that developed Instagram, is at work on an Android version. The filters themselves can become a drag in that it sometimes takes out the hard work out of getting a great shot . Run just about any photo through a filter and you’ll get something interesting. It might even dumb down creativity.
The app has grown so exponentially that it has engendered parasite apps, one of which has been given the iTunes seal of approval and is available at the Apple app store. Instagram Tips gives users tutorials in the app’s features, including how to apply multiple filters to a photo, how to save photos in high resolution, how to apply hashtags and, with a nod to the parents of the teens who will certainly find this new method of connecting with friends appealing, a section on using the app safely and securely. And there are of course rivals, most nobaly Hipstamatic, which boasts a more varied selection of filters but lacks Instagram’s robust community.
And, most recently, Burbn has taken another step on the path to becoming a social juggernaut. It has released Instagram API that will enable other developers to create apps that will nestle inside of Instagram in the same way that Facebook is home to a wide assortment of Facebook-specific apps. In order to demonstrate some of the capabilities, Burbn has created a sample site, which showcases 20 locations. The photos update whenever a new image tagged with one of those locations is uploaded.
For now, Instagram is focused on growth over monetization. The app is free and carries no ads. Several news outlets have set up accounts, as have a couple brands that are quasi-publishers, such as Red Bull. Instagram did hook up with MTV for a promotional Grammys site that showcased Instagram shots from the ceremony. It’s not far-fetched to consider different types of brand-sponsored filters the app could offer. It might even consider selling more robust filters in a freemium model. The big unanswered question is whether Instagram can continue its fast growth rate or will hit a wall with its artsy approach.
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