The Next Frontier of Photo Apps

Instagram may be the leading real-time photo-sharing app now, but when it launched in October 2010 it was just one in a sea of competitive apps. Similar apps including Picplz and Burstn shared almost identical features, yet two years later Instagram has emerged as the clear winner while competitors have either abandoned their apps or settled for the title of runner-up in the real-time photo-sharing battle.

Now a new crop of photo apps are looking to take the title of the new Instagram. Rather than share photos in real-time with add-ons like filters, new apps like Giffer!Cinemagram and Flixel allow users to create photos with animation that they can then share with their social networks. Users take a short video, then animate a small part of the screen to turn it into an animated GIF. With several apps launched already and others launching soon, the question remains: with another crop of similar photo apps emerging, which one will be the next Instagram?

The New Animated Photo Apps

Giffer! was one of the earliest to launch, making it’s debut in the App Store in February 2011. Founder Taber Buhl told us that the app has tens of thousands of users, and he’s currently working on the next version. “The next version will include an in-app camera, cinemegraph tools, and community/social features,” he said.

New entrant Cinemagram was founded by the team at Montreal-based Factyle (makers of the Smartr app) and was released in early February in the App Store. The app allows users to apply filters to their animations, and share them instantly on social networks (features that made Instagram so popular). Founder Temo Chalahasi said the inspiration for the app came from Cinemagraphs, developed by Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg and used primarily for fashion photography. Chalahasi and co-founder Marc Provost had the idea to create an iPhone app that would allow people to create their own, no Photoshopping required. “Until browsers standardize on HTML5 video, animated GIFs are the only way to represent animations in a cross-browser fashion,” Chalahasi said in an interview. “It’s about animations, and about telling the story behind a picture.”

Since launch, Cinemagram has been one of the top 10 paid photo apps in the App Store worldwide, and users have created over 150,000 animations in just over a week. The app is poised to be an early leader in the space. “We’re growing very fast despite a high barrier to entry: a $2 price tag ” Chalahasi said. The app has also had some issues with users posting inappropriate content, and complaints that users couldn’t keep their photos private, which the founders addressed in an update. When asked about competitive apps, or the possibility that Instagram could add animations to their photo-sharing app, Chalahasi admits they’re keeping an eye on the competition. “Definitely worried about competition. We need to stay on our toes,” he said. The company is looking to raise additional funding to add to a seed round from Real Ventures in 2011.

Toronto-based Flixel is launching their similar app in March. Founder Phillippe Leblanc said he also got the inspiration for the app from Beck and Burg’s Cinemagraphs. “I was so awestruck by the beauty of these living photos that I wondered if they could be created on an iPhone,” he said in an interview. He says Flixel stands out because it’s incorporating more discovery and social networking options to empower users, or “flixographers” as he calls them. “We’ve compared our Flixel creation process to others and feel that by far, we provide the better user experience in helping our devotees produce quality flixels.” LeBlanc has raised $255,000 for the app, which is being produced by Endloop Mobile, and he will be looking for additional funding after launch. The app will be available as a free download as opposed to Cinemagram’s $1.99 price tag.

How Instagram Won the Battle

Instagram was a clear front-runner in the photo-sharing app race almost from the get-go. But before their rise to the top of the App Store, similar apps were trying to build an audience. Burstn founder Dave Senior said he got the idea for a frictionless photo-sharing app in 2009, and counted photo apps like Twitpic and Yfrog as competitors in the early days. He learned about Instagram after seeing a Tweet from Kevin Rose, and immediately started following their progress. “When tech writers like MG Siegler, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arrington started posting photos from the beta, getting Retweets, and seeing @ replies to their photos before the app went public, we knew we were in for a real competitor,” he said in an interview. Senior says they tried to compete based on features, but couldn’t replicate Instagram’s growth. “We really tried to outpace them on product.  We had the idea that our app, website and API could beat any offering the competitors had,” he said. “We were releasing features every month, but never achieved viral network effects.” Senior and co-founder Josh Davey aren’t actively working on Burstn anymore, and Senior is now strategic director at Playground Digital.

Senior says the main factor that set Instagram apart was its network of investors, press and users. “The biggest thing that hurt Burstn was its network,” Senior says. “During development and beta our users weren’t the Twitterati, they weren’t the influencers and that hurt us. No one was our hype machine, no one was our evangelist and as a founder, there is only so much you can do without becoming disingenuous.” Instagram had the advantage of being plugged in with the press, startup influencers and investors including Andreessen Horowitz, so even though their product was very similar, they had early attention and a solid user base when they launched. “The Instagram investors were internet rockstars, their first users were internet celebs and influencers, you can’t beat that network,” Senior said.

He also credits Instagram’s success to capitalizing on the filters trend. At the time Instagram came out, Hipstamatic was one of the most popular apps in Apple’s App Store, and was named the Apple’s iPhone App of the Year in 2010 (an honour bestowed on Instagram in 2011). Unlike Burstn, which just focused on the real-time photo-sharing aspect, Instagram focused on that while also giving users the ability to add a variety of filters, similar to Hipstamatic. “They knew the number one selling paid camera app was Hipstamatic, and they made the main focus of their app taking free Hipstamatic-style photos and designing a process that encouraged you to post it to your social network,” Senior says. “They used that simple concept to build their internal network and just nailed it.”

The Next Frontier

While Instagram was number one in the App Store one hour after launch, none of the animated GIF apps have achieved that astronomical level of adoption and accolades. There will be a clear winner in the battle to be the new photo animation app leader. Like Instagram before it, the app that emerges as the leader will require launch buzz and the ability to integrate oft-used features from other popular apps. But nothing is stopping the Instagram team from catching on to the trend and adding the functionality into their existing app – if that happens, the battle might be over before it begins.


Erin Bury

Erin Bury

Erin Bury is a Co-founder and CEO at Willful, an online estate planning platform. Also a former Managing Director at Eighty-Eight, a creative communications agency based in Toronto. She was formerly the Managing Editor at BetaKit. Follow her on Twitter at @erinbury.

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