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The Commodity Technology Powering Instagram’s Imitators Won’t Save Them

Aviary provides filters and photo editing features for Flickr and Twitter’s apps. But that won’t be enough to beat Instagram.
December 21, 2012

In the wake of Instagram’s recent change to its Terms of Service, I challenged someone/anyone to clone the app and charge for it, a la App.net. But wouldn’t it just be easier to fold Instagram’s filtering and editing features into a photo application or social network that already exists? Why yes, it would be. Twitter and Flickr have already done just that, and Aviary is the company whose technology powers these bolted-on features. 

Aviary has been in the commodity photo-feature-providing business since 2011–a pivot from its original business that likely saved the company. And that pivot looks especially savvy now, as the rise of/sale of/rush to capture fleeing users of Instagram has made mobile photo-editing functionality a hot commodity indeed. Aviary licenses a white-label version of its “photo editing SDK” for an undisclosed but no-doubt lucrative fee to an impressive roster of clients. Not all of those clients are trying to beat Instagram at its own game, but the ones that are–like Twitter and Flickr–are betting that Aviary is just the solution they need. 

It isn’t. Why? Because Instagram is a product, not a feature. 

This product/feature distinction is famous in Silicon Valley, because you don’t want to end up on the wrong side of it. Steve Jobs famously dismissed Dropbox as a feature rather than a product–that is, an innovation whose value he could commodify with identical (or close-enough) technology and integrate into his existing products. Jobs may have been wrong about Dropbox. And Twitter and Flickr are making the same mistake in thinking that a commodity tech solution like Aviary can clone all of Instagram’s value.  

Facebook, to its credit, avoided this “it’s the filters, stupid” thinking when it purchased Instagram in the first place. Aviary was already in the photo-editing-feature-supplying business when Mark Zuckerberg bought Instagram; if he wanted the features, could have simply licensed Aviary’s technology and folded them into Facebook, as Twitter and Flickr have done. Or he could have dismantled Instagram osmosized its technology, like Google did with Grand Central to create Google Voice or Apple did with Siri

Instead Zuckerberg treated Instagram like the valuable product it is. Well, actually that’s debatable–Facebook was really buying Instagram’s users, which it is now attempting to monetize at the expense of the product, in many of those users’ opinions. 

Twitter and Flickr (rightly) see an opportunity to recapture those disgruntled users. But those users are actively seeking a unified product–and the singularly valuable experience that it offers–worthy of replacing Instagram, not a grab bag of me-too features tacked onto products and experiences that already exist. Using Aviary’s technology to compete with Instagram is like trying to compete with the Yankees by copying their equipment and uniforms. And “Twitter with photo filters” isn’t going to win fans over any more than a basketball player swinging a bat would. 

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