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New Instagram service means more trouble for TikTok

Instagram Reels was displayed on a mobile phone.  It's Facebook's answer to the hit short-video app TikTok. The new Instagram feature will let users record and edit 15-second videos with audio and visual effects and share them.
Instagram Reels was displayed on a mobile phone. It's Facebook's answer to the hit short-video app TikTok. The new Instagram feature will let users record and edit 15-second videos with audio and visual effects and share them.Tali Arbel/Associated Press

As if the Chinese video-sharing service TikTok didn’t have enough on its plate, here comes new competition from the world’s biggest social-media company.

On Wednesday, Facebook’s video= and photo-sharing app, Instagram, already in use by over a billion people per month, began offering a new feature called Reels to users in 50 countries, including the United States. Reels is essentially a copycat version of TikTok that makes it easy for anybody to create and share 15-second videos with friends, family, or anybody else in the world.

Reels isn’t exactly new. The product was launched last year in Brazil and has since been rolled out in France, Germany, and India — a country that recently banned TikTok after a military clash with China. Now, Reels is available on Instagram’s home turf, as well as in most of the world’s biggest consumer markets.

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The Instagram challenge comes as TikTok faces a threat from the Trump administration to ban the app in the United States as a possible menace to national security. The administration notes that Chinese law lets the government demand access to all of a company’s customer data, including the kind of sensitive personal information that many people post on TikTok.

As a result, TikTok is in the midst of high-stakes negotiations to sell its operations in the United States and some other countries to the software titan Microsoft. A deal would effectively transform TikTok into a US company and spare it from the wrath of Trump.

A tough new competitor is the last thing TikTok needs. It’s already up against a host of small-time video=sharing apps, with names like Byte and Triller. But Instagram’s sheer scale — over a billion unique users per month — puts it in a class by itself.

Just ask the messaging service Snapchat. In 2016, when Snapchat was among the fastest-growing social media services, Facebook offered to buy the company for up to $30 billion. But when Snapchat refused, Facebook simply added a host of Snapchat-like features to Instagram. Snapchat survives, but its growth dwindled as most new users chose Instagram instead. Today, with about 360 million users, Snapchat is no longer a serious challenger to Facebook.

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Instagram Reels could consign TikTok to a similar fate, simply because of its vast base of existing users, combined with Facebook’s ability to attract even more through its flagship social network. TikTok doesn’t release user numbers. But Comscore, a research firm, estimates that as of April the app had attracted nearly 40 million US users each month. That was an increase of 222 percent from the previous year, but it’s tiny compared to the size of Instagram.

Of course, there’s no guarantee Reels will catch on. “Facebook has a mixed track record when it comes to copying other companies’ features,” said Debra Abo Williamson, an analyst at th e research firm eMarketer. “Many of its attempts over the years have failed.”

Indeed, this isn’t even the first time the company has tried to copy TikTok. Facebook launched an app called Lasso in late 2018, but scrubbed the project just a few weeks ago.

Williamson noted that Facebook’s effort to copy Snapchat was hugely successful, however. “I believe Instagram has a similar opportunity with Reels,“ she said, “but it’s not a guaranteed success.”

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.