When Facebook bought Instagram last month for the cool price of $1 billion, my Twitter feed showed nothing else for about six hours after the announcement. It was big news, especially seeing as it was the biggest acquisition Facebook had ever made. It also caused instant chatter in the tech world, including those jokes (“Why did Zuckerberg pay $1 billion for Instagram when he could have downloaded it for free?”) which raised a slight chuckle the first time you read them but started to grate slightly when every third person was retweeting them.
Facebook stated that Instagram would be independently managed, so really the acquisition meant nothing – apart from the Instagram team earning a fat load of cash. There was chatter that Instagram would be merged into Facebook with its filters and photo effects but again, nothing much has happened. Now, Facebook have launched a standalone “Camera” app for iOS (no word on the Android version yet) which many see as a competitor to Instagram.
There’s no major difference in the programs. Facebook Camera has 15 built-in photo effects (compared to Instagram’s 18) and one advantage is the ability to upload multiple photos to Facebook at once. You can also edit pictures straight from the app and tag people in them before uploading.
It all sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? After using the app for a couple of minutes, it’s blatantly obvious to even the most casual of users that the Camera app has taken a couple of leaves out of Instagram’s book with the in-built photo effects, which all look very nice but are nothing new. The app also features a mini News Feed for your friends photos, so you can scroll through them, Like them, comment on them and so on.
And all these fancy features fail to impress me one bit. I guess I’m more of the traditional photographer here. I use my phone to take pictures only if I’m out and I want to snap something quickly – for the bulk of my photography I use my Nikon DSLR. I do use Instagram but more to share little snippets and photos with slightly witty comments rather than the place to show off my photography skills (there’s Flickr and 500px for that).
But the big question is: why did Facebook launch Camera? After all, they could have easily integrated the features of Camera (multiple photo uploading, filters, photo editing) into the default Facebook app (while, hopefully, ironing out the mountain of bugs in the app, which is just as clunky on iOS as it is on Android) – but no. They chose to release a product in almost direct competition with Instagram; and it seems that die-hard Facebook users (of which I am not one) are being coaxed into making the switch.
The buy-out deal of Instagram may have something to do with it. According to the British Daily Telegraph, the deal may not be finalised for another 12 months because of an obligatory “competition probe” built in. Facebook has apparently been working on an Instagram rival for quite a long time (even before the deal was announced) and Camera is most likely the product of this work.
The whole situation seems to me like a little ‘tit-for-tat’, and I’m on Instagram’s side here. It was only launched in October 2010 to a market saturated with alternatives and anyone would have thought that starting up a social network in the shadow of Facebook was suicide. But Instagram did it differently – offering a simple way to share your photos with some fancy effects that made them look a bit alternative – and it paid off. In April 2012, the network had 30 million accounts, and that was even before the Android version was announced.
I don’t like Facebook’s whole approach to the situation and given their poor share price (which has since tumbled from $38 to around $32 since the IPO), it seems that investors and the market alike haven’t reacted positively either. The constant struggle for the biggest slice of pie leaves some companies resorting to almost desperate measures, and Camera is one these: a copy of what is, in my opinion, a far superior product.