Of all the countless apps that allow users to share photos online, why did Instagram become such a huge fad, downloaded 30 million times since it was launched in October 2010? Why did Facebook Inc. choose to buy Instagram over any other, paying $1 billion for the Silicon Valley start-up last week?
Although the personal connection may have helped - Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg once tried to hire Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom - Instagram’s remarkable popularity likely did the most to bring about its billion-dollar payday.
The app is fun and easy to use; but so are other online photo-sharing services, like Path and Pixable. But only Instagram has racked up as many users so quickly. Instagram attracted 10 million users in its first year even though until last month, it was available only for Apple Inc.’s iPhone. When a version was finally released for Android devices two weeks ago, 5 million copies were downloaded in just six days.
Facebook declined to comment on the acquisition beyond official releases, and Instagram did not return a request for an interview. But Instagram’s slate of simple tools, called filters, for making an image sharper or prettier is clearly part of its unique appeal. The resulting image can be quickly snapped to family or friends. And Instagram allows users to publish their favorite shots online, even at other social sites like Twitter.
Jennifer Linde, a graduate student and mother in Carver, learned about Instagram from a cousin last summer. “I fell in love with Instagram simply due to the filters,’’ Linde wrote in an e-mail. “My photos are instantly turned into bright, crisp, fun portrayals of my life, instantly available to share with others.’’
Like Instagram, Path - one of the better-known alternative photo-sharing apps - lets users instantly shoot, modify, and share photos, and can even add a snippet of music. But while Instagram is designed for unlimited interactions, Path users create a miniature social network that is open to just 150 friends.
‘I like that Path essentially forces an intimate social network.’Carissa Caramanis O’Brien
Path’s simple design makes it unusually easy to operate, said Don Dodge, developer advocate at Google Inc. and author of The Next Big Thing, a prominent technology blog. “Path, I think, has the best design and user experience of any mobile app out there,’’ he said.
“I like that Path essentially forces an intimate social network,’’ wrote Carissa Caramanis O’Brien of Maynard, a social media community and content director for insurance company Aetna Inc., in a Facebook message. “Since you can only connect with 150 friends, you need to be thoughtful about what purpose it has for you.’’
Piictu, another social photo app, uses images to conduct online chatting. Friends post pictures relating to a particular subject - cars, for instance, or the pending presidential election. Their friends respond with relevant photographs rather than words. “Every photo you upload on Piictu is the beginning of a conversation,’’ company founder Jon Slimak wrote in an e-mail.
Still another photo app, Pixable, helps smartphone users pull together images users post on various online sites. Created in 2009 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates Inaki Berenguer and Andres Blank, Pixable aggregates friends’ pictures stored at Facebook, Twitter, the popular photo website Flickr, and even Instagram, making them all viewable in a single app.
“People love Pixable because we bring all the photos their friends share to one place, and surface the ones that are most relevant to them,’’ according to Blank.
It is possible another social photography app could hit an Instagram-like jackpot. Buying Instagram gave Facebook a missing ingredient: an easy way to share photos on a mobile device. The deal also allowed Facebook to absorb a potential competitor. Another photo-sharing service could become similarly attractive.
Blank thinks the billion-dollar Instagram deal makes Pixable a desirable investment. “It’s something we’re extremely excited about,’’ he said. “As more Facebook users become familiar with Instagram, and in general, photo-sharing via mobile apps, that will only increase the number of photos being shared and make the problem we’re trying to solve more relevant.’’
Dodge thinks Facebook might buy Path just for its skill in designing smartphone-friendly social apps. “Facebook, for all its glory and leadership, is abysmal in mobile, and mobile is the future,’’ Dodge said. “How much do you think it would be worth to Facebook to have the elegance of the Path design?’’
Path even has an Instagram-like connection to Facebook. Cofounder Dave Morin was a longtime software developer at the giant social network.
There is room for many social photo apps right now because consumers are still in an experimental mood, said Chris Silva, industry analyst for mobile devices at Altimeter Group, a research firm based in San Mateo, Calif. “People want to have three or four ways to do it, until their tastes mature,’’ he said.
But over time, Silva predicted, people will settle on one or two apps. “The sharing piece of this starts to consolidate,’’ he said, “and it starts to consolidate around the big brand: Facebook.’’Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.