Here’s one thought that occurred to me that I haven’t seen yet. It’s in the speculative fiction territory, but it seems to pass the smell test.
What if the Instagram acquisition isn’t about advertising or defense, as almost everyone — including me — seems to think it is? What if it’s bigger than that, and an acquisition à la Apple’s of Siri and Lala? Something that hints at Facebook’s broader mobile strategy?
The one thing that’s been clear from the Instagram deal is that Facebook is struggling in mobile, and it’s not just because they haven’t been monetizing it. They clearly haven’t cracked the mobile nut. Even though their app is one of the most popular in the world, there’s a sense of staleness there as they’ve struggled to capture mobile mindshare. Check-ins didn’t work. Neither did competing with Instagram. Plus they’ve got threats like Path, or Highlight, or the dozens of other venture-backed companies that smell weakness here.
More than that, Facebook needs a platform in the mobile world. Five years ago, when people talked about apps, they meant Facebook apps. That’s not the world Facebook inhabits anymore. And they can feel their major partners like Zynga wriggling away. And I think they can feel their users starting to slip through their iron grip. It’s increasingly possible to imagine a world without Facebook being a major part of it.
They’ve been beating the HTML5 drum but it’s doubtful that many will heed the call in a meaningful way. And even then they’re still at the mercy of the handset manufacturers and OS developers. Which is one of the reasons that the rumors that Facebook is building a phone make too much sense to ignore.
So here’s where the sci-fi kicks in: Instagram isn’t an app for Facebook. It becomes a part of the phone, in the same way that the native camera app is for the iPhone. But it’s not just a camera app. In the world of Facebook it’s an order of magnitude better. It’s not about megapixels. It’s not about filters. It’s an entirely different way of thinking about the camera app. Sharing could be built in. The camera is the feed and the feed is the camera.
It’s not for everyone. There are definitely major privacy and usability concerns. But a camera that pushes everything to Instagram? A camera that is Instagram? It’s a crazy amount of sharing, but that hasn’t held Facebook back. It is a dramatically different way of approaching what a phone is. And that goes further than cameras. Check-ins. Nearby friends. All the apps that compete with Facebook become features on their phone. Users, as they almost always do, will use whatever defaults are set up.
Social as a differentiating factor is something that Microsoft has been kinda-sorta pushing by claiming that it’s easier to share with Windows Phone 7. But that still sees sharing as a multi-step process. It’s something you do on top of something else. This would be completely different.
It’s been said that if you’re going to build a product it can’t be just as good as what’s out there. It’s got to be an order of magnitude better. And better means more compelling. So far, the iPhone has been the gold standard against which all others are measured. Nothing has stacked up yet. But there’s been enough discussion among the early adopters and even Apple fans that they want to see something new. Hence the buildup of anticipation for the Lumia 900 — and Microsoft and Nokia seem to have whiffed that.
But this — this is a strategy I could see competing against Apple in a very real way. And social is definitely something that Apple does not have a handle on.