Why Facebook bought Instagram and what it means for Apple and iOS

With Facebook buying Instagram, the world's largest social network site scooped up one of the fastest accelerating social network apps. The cost for the acquisition was $1 billion in stock and cash. That's roughly twice what many thought Instagram was worth, which raises the question -- why?

It wasn't for the technology behind the social platform or the raw numeric user base. Facebook is the social network already, with a footprint larger than many terrestrial landmasses. It wasn't for the photos or fancy filters. Facebook is already the largest online photo repository on earth, and larger by such a degree that very little else can be seen outside their shadow. And a company one one-millionth the size of Facebook could come up with their own filter pack, or just clone Instagram's, faster than even the Google Play Store would approve the app. It wasn't for that app either. As buggy and beleaguered as Facebook for iPhone is, Instagram isn't exactly a user interface or user experience triumph. Viewed simply as a camera replacement, it's serviceable but not inspired, usable but not delightful.

Taken piece by piece, it's hard to see anything particularly attractive about Instagram that warrants a $1 billion pay day. But taken together? Taken as the sum of its parts? More than serviceable, more than inspired, and absolutely delightful.

Facebook just bought an incredibly fast growing social network with a passionate, engaged user base -- that's .

In a way, it's like IBM buying Microsoft just as DOS was about to get going. Or Yahoo! buying Google just before AdSense became a cash cow. Or Google buying Facebook back when a billion dollars would still have been cool.

Instagram was by no means poised to replace Facebook in any way resembling any of those previous generational shifts, but it was specifically poised to cause Facebook a huge amount of pain in areas where Facebook is extremely tender.

By easily letting users share photos in a way much funner, cooler, and mobile-centric than Facebook, like IBM with Microsoft, Yahoo! with Google, or Google with Facebook, Instagram left Facebook ill positioned to respond.

While it's almost terrifying to think of Facebook as the old guard or the establishment, the acceleration of mobile has made Facebook exactly that. Where IBM was a mainframe company at the dawn of PCs, Yahoo! a directory company at the dawn of ad-auctioned search, and Google a search company at the dawn of social, Facebook is a web company in a world increasingly dominated by mobile apps.

Other than as a way to enable cross-platform sharing and account management, and to serve as a billboard encouraging app downloads, Instagram barely even has a website in the traditional sense.

The more users go mobile, the more photos are shared on Instagram, the more friends tharey made and comments are exchanged there, the less time users have to spend on Facebook. As much as Facebook intercepted and walled off traffic that might have gone to Google (through an "open" web filled with Google served ads), Instagram was beginning to intercept and wall off social photography traffic that might have gone to Facebook.

No one ever sees their own disruption coming, but smart companies can act the moment it first shows up on their radar. Instagram was certainly showing up on Facebook's radar, and what better way to beat them than to buy them?

Facebook gets an injection of young, hip blood. Instagram gets deep pockets to either continue whatever strategic vision they had pre-acquisition (if they had one other than acquisition, that it), or to bring them into the greater Facebook experience. Right now Facebook claims they're going to keep Instagram "as is", but it's best never to trust giant corporations still in the heat of new purchase. For every YouTube there's a Flickr, for every Siri there's a Jaiku.

Either way, it's almost certainly business as usual for Apple. With iOS, Apple is already incredibly well positioned in mobile and while Photo Stream isn't a great mobile photo solution, Apple has the capability to improve it on their own. The increased quality of the cameras on both the iPhone 4S and iPad 3 show photography is a priority for them, as did the comments from Steve Jobs on photography still being in need of innovation.

While the idea of an alternate universe "What if Apple had bought Instagram instead of Facebook?" story isn't without it's theoretical appeal, it's also without any apparent upside. Sure, Instagram built into iOS would have given the iPhone filters like many Android interfaces have, and a social network on the opposite end of the hip spectrum from Ping. However, it wouldn't have helped Apple do the only thing Apple exists to do -- make more money for Apple.

A Facebook owned Instagram, as long as the app stays available for iOS, is pretty much the same as an independently owned Instagram. If Apple had, or ever would plan to integrate Instagram into iOS the way they did Twitter, previous differences with Facebook could now make that less likely, but certainly not impossible. And if Facebook ever scraps the iOS version, say to make it exclusively for, and central to, an Android-forked Facebook phone, it wouldn't be too hard for Apple to roll their own filters and turn on some form of commenting system. (Make all the Ping jokes you want, but hundreds of millions of users with sudden access to a Twitter-integrated social network for photons would fill an immediate gap, if nothing else.)

For iPhone users, the situation is pretty much status quo as well. You can export your Instagrams and kill your account if even the whiff of Facebook is too much for you. But day to day, photo to photo, it's going to be business as usual for everyone involved, and it'll likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Facebook bought Instagram precisely because they weren't Facebook, but could become something... next. While Instagram may or may not be worth $1 billion, being ahead of the disruption curve certainly is. And the best way to ensure that continues is to keep Instagram as not Facebook.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.