Facebook launches a new Photo app, after its Instagram purchase. Why?

Facebook’s new mobile photography app, simply named ‘Camera’, is the latest attempt by the company to better integrate its social media platform with smartphones – a weakness the company acknowledged in its recent troubled IPO.

Just six weeks ago CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the controversial purchase of Instagram for $1bn, a revenue-less, profitless start up photography app that has proven popular with youths, especially the ‘hipster’ demographic (see my blog about the purchase here)

The two apps share much in common, but for now Zuckerberg has said that Instragram will be run as its own entity, without being folded into Facebook Inc. proper.

Photography wise, it’s safe to say that Camera has borrowed a lot from Instagram, such as instant Facebook posting (naturally), basic cropping and colour filters. Most of these filters are very basic, and don’t tend to cross over into Instagram’s retro faded-Polaroid cachet.

Where Facebook’s new app really shines is in its reviewing capabilities, which is actually very well integrated with Facebook itself. I actually now find this to be preferable to using the formal Facebook app (or mobile web version) to review images posted by myself or contacts.

Simple tabs flip between ‘Me’ and ‘Friends’, users then scroll vertically through albums, and then horizontally within the albums themselves – it makes for a very quick and efficient browsing platform, and reminds me of Flipbook’s UI.

Normal Facebook posts and the other detritus are excluded, making for a nice visual experience – likes, comment numbers and tags are translucently overlaid in the corners of the images. Tagging is done simply by tapping the image, while comments exist in a text box below the image.

Basically, you don’t need to open new windows, or leave the app to fiddle with your images (although thats an option), which is a breath of fresh air for Facebook’s normally torturous mobile interfaces.

Best of all, it’s a fast app. Even using an iPhone 3GS which chokes and splutters using the formal Facebook app, this runs smoothly and loads quickly..

So why has Facebook decided to compete with itself in this space?

They surely don’t intend to run to competing platforms against each ad infinitum. Google learned that the hard way with its attempts years ago to run YouTube alongside Google Video after its purchase. Google Video was eventually folded into YouTube, and mostly disbanded. It exists now as little more than a YouTube shell.

HP has also demonstrated how buying companies can go wrong – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Run it separately and collect the profits – let the founders run it as they have been. Although in the case of Instragram, the business case is a bit more iffy and looks worryingly like a ‘Dotcom’ purchase (see CBRs feature story here)

To be fair to Facebook, it has had its Camera app in development for a long time – long before any Instagram purchase – Zuckerberg has admitted as much.

I suspect the demographics between Camera and Instagram are different enough for them both to survive comfortably for the time being. As I mentioned earlier, Facebook has been careful not to steal Instagram’s most visible appeal – its scratchy, retro Polaroid look that hipster kids love, that false sense of individuality and creativity.

It’s also twice as many photographic gateways to Facebook, and not to Twitter, Pinterest or Path.

Keeping Instagram separate means it retains its cool cachet, part of the reason it jumped to some 50m users in under a year.

Zuckerberg is very wary of damaging that brand – a quick glance at the message boards show that most of Instagram’s clientele weren’t happy about the app ‘selling out’. The fear being that it would simply be folded into Facebook and lose its identity.

Keeping the two apps separate means Facebook can retain the hipsters, while using its new, cleaner (more professional?) app to pull in new customers, and perhaps even begin the process of transmigration as the hipsters grow out of the Instagram fad over the next few years or so.

There will still be fears that Facebook plans to do a Microsoft: Embrace, Extend and Extinguish, but I suspect Zuckerberg isn’t that kind of businessman, and if he is – there is no rush.

Zuckerberg is acutely aware that the Facebook brand may be approaching saturation point in the west, and antagonising the new youth market is no way to keep Facebook ‘down with the kids’, and fend off rival startups.

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