Instagram + Facebook
We can't have nice things. We can't have small design companies who make kick-ass products, we can't have new ideas or features or applications. We can't have any of these things because Facebook is an internet juggernaut, slowly rolling over everyone and everything.
I complained a few years ago about Facebook steamrolling check-in apps when they released their “Places” product, which was basically a simple version of what other apps like Foursquare and Gowalla were already doing really well (I'm aware of the irony that Facebook later acquired Gowalla):
And, most recently, Facebook launched Places, competing with Foursquare and Gowalla (my favorite). Places launched and 20 minutes later nearly everyone in my Facebook friends list had already checked in. It’s not that Facebook’s Places feature is bad, it’s just that it’s boring. It’s nothing special. They didn’t do it better than anyone else.
That’s the problem with Facebook. They are slowly destroying independent web applications with boring versions that immediately win due to Facebook’s population (which at this point is the 3rd largest country on earth). There’s no demand for excellence.
I've come to realize I was wrong when I wrote that last bit. There very much is a demand for excellence inside Facebook, and it was ridiculous of me to declare otherwise. Facebook is constantly revising their UI/UX and for the most part, they're doing a terrific job. Their design sensibilities are minimalistic, but that doesn't make them any less excellent. The problem is that while they do an excellent job of hitting their desired goals with design and products, they don't set their goals high enough to begin with.
When Facebook launched Places, they simply implemented the bare minimum feature set to compete in the marketplace, and included the requisite friend tagging functionality all Facebook products have. This is fine and functional, but if you're going to compete with existing, excellent products, why only match their current features? Why not make your product even better? Why lean on the “we have more users so we automatically win” excuse?
When Apple announced the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs said:
Now, software on mobile phones is like baby software. It’s not so powerful. And today, we’re going to show you a software breakthrough. Software that’s at least 5 years ahead of what’s on any other phone.
Apple could have released a mobile operating system on par with Nokia's Symbian or RIM's Blackberry OS, but they didn't. They went far above and beyond to create a product wholly unique and new, one that was significantly better than the competition's. I wish for this to be Facebook's goal when they release a new product. It rarely seems to be.
Hey, it's a business!
Facebook wants to grow their user count and increase page views and the amount of time you spend on the site. They eventually want to be the only site you visit on the internet. Open Facebook to get your mail, your instant messaging, your news, your music, your video chat, your photos, your videos, your games. This makes perfect sense–Facebook is a business after all–the more users they have and the more time is spent on the site, the more money they make.
But is Facebook being this large beneficial for users in the long run? Do we want to spend all of our time on one site run by one large group of designers and developers with one design direction and one central objectives checklist? Do we want every product or service we enjoy using to be swallowed up by this mega-corporation and folded into their already exhaustive feature set? Are we okay with the inevitable process of removing unique details from these products as they get rebranded and modified to fit into the Facebook aesthetic? Do we want to constantly worry an application we love could be destroyed at any moment because Facebook decides it wants to control that particular market and leverages its billion users? The answer for me, to all of those questions, is no.
But why sell Instagram?
I think we all know the real answer: Instagram couldn't make any money. They had 27 million users and they still weren't making a dime. It doesn't sound like they had any real strategies for doing so, either. In fact, just before their acquisition, Instagram closed another $50M in funding.
A two year old company with nearly 30 million users on multiple mobile platforms still not making a dime and continuing to take millions of dollars in funding? Yeah, selling to Facebook was probably a good call. In the end, though, I think there's a high likelihood users lose in this deal.
As fellow Svbtler Christina Warren wrote at Mashable Today:
As a user, I can’t help but wonder: how long before Instagram becomes just another Facebook app? How much time until everything that made the service so special disappears into the ether?
DISCLOSURE: I was approached by and interviewed at Facebook in 2006, after which I was offered a position I later declined.