So, we learn today that in spite of dropping more than $1 billion on Instagram, that Facebook was busy at work building its very own Instagram, Facebook Camera. Days prior to its IPO, Facebook also acquired LightBox, a mobile photo-sharing app for Android.
Why the focus on photos? Facebook is trying to solve its mobile problem; namely, that its users are increasingly using the ad-free, and consequently, non-revenue-generating, mobile app in lieu of the web experience (as highlighted in an amendment to the IPO filling).
Facebook's instinct to address its mobile issue with images is a good one: it's easy to forget that Facebook was the first to introduce (or at least, popularize) the ability to for people to tag other people in their photos, which made photo sharing the predominant behavior that it is today.
Yet since then (and until the Instagram deal), Facebook stagnated on that front. But there's more to photo innovation than filters. Here are a group of startups that could help Facebook take photos to the next level and maybe even make some money doing it:
First, there's Cinemagr.am, a product of Factyle Inc., which is to animated .gifs what Instagram is to photos. Animated .gifs are on the rise as both an art form and storytelling device – they already dominate the sites like Buzzfeed and Tumblr. Cinemagram is mobile app (currently iOS only but with Android on the way) that creates images with subtle animations, essentially freezing a video while keeping one part dynamic. They are beautiful and increasingly popular, yet not easy to share on Facebook. When Facebook acquired Instagram, it was likely more for the user base than the actual technology or photo effect, hence the billion dollar price tag. Facebook could acquire Cinemagram now on the cheap (relatively speaking) – or wait a year until it explodes and shell out another hefty sum of cash.
Then there's Tracks, which we named a pre-SXSW startup to watch. To quote myself, "Tracks is a photo-sharing app that 's less about social discovery and more about collaborative curation between friends. It's meant to be a tool for groups to create and share experiences, as users start tracks to reflect a certain experience and invite friends to help build out that track with photos, commentary and other content."
But beyond consumer apps there are some b-to-b startups adding deep functionality to photos that have consumer and business applications:
Stipple, Luminate, Dro.pt and ThingLink all offer deeper levels of interactivity and functionality to an otherwise static image, going beyond just tagging people, albeit with a few key differentiators.
Stipple and Thinglink, for example, allow users to tag photos with music, sharing tools, videos, and even commerce through iTunes, Amazon, Etsy and others. Stipple's spin is to address the unwieldy republication and repurposing of photos and images so that any added functionalities are carried with the image no matter where it's replicated, be it on Pinterest, Tumblr, or anywhere else.
ThingLink, on the other hand, touts a DIY editor, designed to make it easy for anyone to add those deeper dimensions to basic images – and then easily import it to Facebook. Dro.pt, still in Beta, is focused primarily on the fashion industry and Luminate works with advertisers and publishers to build in very specific supplementary content or functionality to their images – stats around a sports photo, commerce to a fashion photo, or relevant twitter conversations to a political image.
All of four of those startups are currently b-to-b. However, if Facebook were to partner with, or acquire, one of these companies, it could easily make those tools available to the general user. Imagine going to a concert and being able to tag pictures with your favorite song, just as you would the friends who went with you, and for others to be able to listen to and buy that song from iTunes directly from that Facebook picture.
Luminate CRO, Chas Edwards, notes a few obstacles to making this vision a reality. First is the work that goes into it. Right now, these services either rely on people-powered tagging, image recognition, or both, but the ability to scale this functionality – to make it easy for people to accurately tag the products or outfits in photos, were they so inclined, is not an easy endeavor. Secondly, there's a reason people tag other people – they get paid, not in money, but in social currency, through 'likes' and 'shares.'
Whether or not people would be similarly interested in, and rewarded for, tagging products remains to be seen, but sites like Pinterest, The Fancy and Svpply certainly offer hope, and the first step would be in offering the tools to do so, regardless.
That said, ThingLink CMO, Neil Vineberg, tells me they are working on mobile and consumer-facing versions of the product. These developments, coupled with the existing DIY service and Facebook integration, could make ThingLink Facebook's best bet to reignite its innovation in photo-space by providing those tools to its massive user base.
With Instagram already dominating this space and a multitude apps to edit, filter, manipulate, and share photos, Facebook really needs to push those boundaries and surprise users with new features. Incorporating the advanced tagging functions of Thinglink, the animated .gif capabilities of Cinemagr.am, and the photo-based conversation threads of Tracks, would really differentiate their mobile photo experience and stake this territory as its own.