Instagram: the camera app the iPhone should have shipped with

In talking to fellow Googler Brian Slesinsky about Instagram, it occurred to me that its crazy success so far is due to the fact that it’s really the photo app that the iPhone should have shipped with iOS! No really — bear with me.

Here are two points that support this realization:


Monolithic systems — like yesteryear’s feature phones which were all inclusive and couldn’t be extended through apps — were confusing to users. You used the phone to do one thing: to make calls. Apps on superphones change this by giving users the option to make explicit choices about how they experience certain features, which in turn determines what they do.

To draw an analogy based on a previous generation technology, choosing between Internet Explorer 6 and Firefox 1.0 was a non-rational decision if you consider the “internet” that each browser delivered… oh wait, they delivered the same internet! So what difference did your choice in browser make? Well, a lot. It was the implementation of the chrome around the core activity (web browsing) that made that decision meaningful to people. People chose the “Firefox version of the internet” over the “Blue E version of the internet”, not really grokking the difference, but appreciating Firefox’s superior and streamlined experience (i.e. no popups, faster speed, and tabs).

So it goes with the app marketplaces: though several apps “do the same thing”, they differentiate by the experience they offer in completing a task, and users can tell the experiences apart by app icon — so users can show their allegiance to certain “feature experiences” by clicking one icon over another.


So it goes with Instagram and iOS’s default

I can’t really fault Apple on their camera app — it does what you’d expect, which is the same thing that all cameras have done since the beginning: capture moments of time in pictures. Which, by today’s standards, is BOOORINGGGGG!

Instagram is the first photo app that the iPhone deserves — availing itself of the network built into every iOS device (Wi-Fi or cellular) to enhance the photo-shooting experience — through sharing or consuming other people’s photos. The filters help to create new kinds of meaning in ways that only a computer-augmented camera could (film cameras can’t apply filters on the spot, and after the fact take loads of extra work and experimentation to get good results). Thus once people try Instagram, it becomes clear that the camera can become a communication tool (just as Twitter transformed SMS into a narrow-band broadcast channel for the masses) — as long as the process for creating and sharing photos is sufficiently accelerated and lightweight.

So — apps make it possible to choose between different implementations of the same function; and thus Instagram provides a viable alternative to Apple’s default Camera app which, frankly, should become the new default photo-making experience for iOS devices.

Originally published at on November 11, 2010.

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