While writing a recent blog post about Flickr’s fall from grace in the online photo sharing world, I realized that it’s reluctance to embrace mobile was one of the key contributors to the the site’s downturn. This got me thinking about another photo sharing service that was being used by an increasing number of brands and individuals – Instagram. So I began to wonder: could Instagram survive as a mobile-only app? Or does it need to develop a web-based companion to avoid a similar fate to Flickr?

Instagram was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion back in April. Although there was some initial shock at the price tag, the acquisition made sense. Instagram amassed 30 million users in just 18 months without even having a website that extended beyond a single landing page. Facebook liked Instagram’s proven success on mobile – an area that Facebook has been working to improve. Nielsen reported that 40 percent of social media users accessed social through mobile, and that number is rising quickly. For Facebook, the deal made sense. For Instagram, it was incredibly profitable. For social and mobile users everywhere, it was a match made in heaven.

Instagram has done a lot of things right since its launch. It’s free, so barriers for individuals to sign up were low. The interface is familiar but fresh, and users can edit photos of any kind using an array of filters. It plays well with other social sites – integrating with Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare and even Flickr. It has companions to share content  online – and that’s why it doesn’t need its own website. All of these factors have contributed to it’s massive and speedy growth, and developers are only going to continue to build upon it.

Mobile is everywhere – literally and figuratively. More and more people don’t get a lot of time in front of a desktop/laptop anymore. Many who do are at work stations that restrict access to social sites. Even more, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift where people are spending more time on their mobile devices and less on actual machines. Free time is spent glancing at the pocket mobile or using it as a camera. Smart phones are truly becoming extensions of our persona.

There was a time when mobile apps needed a web companion to go full circle and become established. People have already started asking if Instagram’s strategy can be duplicated – and many signs point to yes. Flickr needed to embrace mobile as part of its strategy to maintain its position as king of online photos. Instagram, on the other hand, doesn’t need to embrace a web-based platform to survive. However, interesting parallels can be drawn between the two services and Instagram would benefit from studying the pitfalls that took down Flickr.

Instagram was acquired by a larger, powerful company – like Flickr was by Yahoo! However, it hasn’t strayed far from its pre-acquisition self. Innovation has continued at Instagram – unlike the stall that happened at Flickr. New interfaces and sharing partners are just two examples of continued growth. In late June, Instagram finally added a small web-functionality iteration. It’s no full blown site, but users can access individual photos to add comments or likes. There’s still no browsing functionality, but that may very well be on the way. And finally, there are countless alternatives to Instagram – Facebook even launched its mobile camera app in May. Although none of the social media photo-sharing giants of today seem to be in immediate danger of failure, Flickr proved that they can indeed fall – hard.

Ultimately Instagram could definitely survive as a mobile app, but to truly flourish it’ll need to embrace web-based functionalities. Personally, I’d be okay with that as long as it keeps true to its original simplicity. An easy-to-use website would be a great addition to Instagram, as long as the site doesn’t stray too far from what makes the app so great on mobile.

“Photos are the glue and currency of social networks.”
Allen Murabayashi, PhotoShelter blog

Update (Oct. 3, 2012) – A great article was posted today on Social Media Examiner titled ’10 Creative Ways to Use Instagram for Business‘. It gives smart tips and examples, and got me thinking about Instagram again.

One issue we’ve encountered when using Instagram for business is the difficulty/ annoyance of managing a corporate account on a phone that also has your personal Instagram account (which is pretty much always). There is no built-in functionality (unless I’m missing something) to easily toggle between accounts. Without an online web interface as an alternative, I hope to see this introduced as a new feature in an update sometime soon!

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