The must-have app on the iPhone is not iMessage. It's not iTunes or Safari or even Find My iPhone. It's Instagram, the photo-sharing app that once described itself as "quirky." Cultish would be more appropriate these days.
Those who use and love Instagram are locked to their iPhones in far tighter fashion than any contract could ever manage. Just ask someone whose Instagrams show up regularly in your Facebook or Twitter feed; they'll tell you they're incapable of using a phone that doesn't have the service. Yes, Instagram is where your friends drop photos of their lunch. But it's more than that: It's a real-time window that peers out into the wide world. It's where millions post photos of revolutions, riots, the ugly, the beautiful, and the banal. Abandon the iPhone and that window slams shut. And that's a powerful incentive to stay put.
Sure, there are other notable iOS-only apps—Instapaper, for example, or Flipboard. And of course Apple itself makes a slew of useful apps that best anything similar on competing platforms—like the aforementioned iMessage and Safari. But all of those have analogues on other platforms. Not Instagram. Others apps may duplicate what it does—when it comes to photo processing, that is—but without the network, none have its appeal. You want to be on the thing your friends are on. You want to go where the real-time visual network already exists. And, for now at least, that's not Android or Windows Phone.
In retrospect, Instagram is obvious. Take a picture. Make it better. Share it instantly. That's all it does, but it does it very well. The app applies photo-filters that add a veneer of fake nostalgia to the present day, with Land Camera and Kodachrome hues. Then, if you want, you can post it on your social network of choice.
You can think of it like a visual Twitter, or a quicker Flickr. But mostly, you should think of it as a bonafide blockbuster.
Instagram launched on October 6, 2010 at 12:30 am, with just two people: company founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Both very young: 28 and 25 respectively. Kevin has a lot of presence. He's tall and direct and on point; in person he's a lot like he appears in Best Buy's recent Super Bowl commercial. He had been an intern at Odeo where he met Jack Dorsey and Ev Williams, and watched Twitter take off. Then, while in grad school at Stanford, he met Mike Krieger, an affable Brazilian programmer with an easy smile who still comes across as completely awestruck that he's got this wolf by the ears. Together, they founded Burbn, a location-sharing service. It failed to catch fire. But their second try? Five alarm.
There are a mere ten employees at Instagram—only eight of whom are even in the US. Yet in the past year and change it has racked up more than 15 million users, who have uploaded some 500 million photos. The service has pulled in $7.5 million in investments, including money from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. It's already available in ten different languages, and, having already scored a hit stateside, is piling on users in China, Brazil, and throughout Europe. All this without having a Web interface. All this while only being available on the iPhone. And all this while iterating and scaling and building out the back end like a company that commands an army of developers. It doesn't.
Based on outward appearances, you might think the Instagram crew a relatively quiet bunch—after all, they only have an iPhone app and a placeholder-like website that offers basically no functionality. But since last October, the team has added hashtags and autocomplete functions, completely reworked the comment interface, added email sharing, converted the entire image pipeline to Open GL, created a news view, added support for high res images, tacked on 10 languages, and rolled out a slew of new filters and other features. All this while completely rebuilding the back end to support its exponential growth. Phew.
And despite all that, the only thing people want to know is when it's coming to Android, or when it's coming to Windows Phone. We do too. Because when it does? 15 million will seem like a blip.
Justin Bieber Is a Scaling Problem
Instagram isn't just small; it's tiny. It's miniscule. It is famously located in Twitter's old digs in San Francisco's South Park neighborhood. But here's the thing: Instagram subleases its space from another company. Instagram isn't in Twitter's old office, it's in Twitter's old conference room. The entire company is nothing more than a collection of desks arranged bullpen-style in a room that is smaller than most two-car garages. There's also a small reception area (sans receptionist), a collection of vintage cameras, a cow rug and, well, that's it. But for a little company, it has some very big names.
"Celebrities cause things to break," explains Systrom, matter-of-fact, while slurping down a coffee approximately the size of a cow heart.
Just the day before, President Barack Obama had signed on and begun sending out photos. This seemed like a real sign that Instagram had arrived. Obama already has accounts on Flickr and Facebook. He (or his people) must have seen something unique and wonderful in Instagram's audience, some way to reach people via that channel that it couldn't through others. When the President joins your network, it's news. And while it's great news, it can be the kind of thing a company isn't prepared for. But as it turns out, Obama is a fractional compared to Justin Bieber.