So Facebook just did something funny.
No, this has nothing to do with its strangely-fumbled IPO, or yet another revision of its privacy policies. This is about an app called Facebook Camera.
Facebook’s no stranger to multiple apps -there’s a dedicated app for messaging on Android phones, for example- so the fractured approach it’s taking to feature offerings isn’t what I’m talking about here. Considering the rather cumbersome implementation of photo-sharing features in the Facebook iOS app, it makes perfect sense that the company would release a dedicated application just for image sharing.
What’s strange about the release is that it comes just over five weeks after Facebook announced plans to spend an eyebrow-raising $1 billion to acquire Instagram. A service which does the same thing Facebook Camera does, just better.
I don’t have an iPhone, but fortunately Facebook Camera works just fine on the 2012-edition iPad which I do own. When I saw it was available for download earlier today, I grabbed a copy from the App Store (it’s free, natch) and gave it a spin.
Installation is simplicity itself. If you already have the Facebook app installed on your iOS device, Facebook Camera just asks for your permission to use that same account. A few seconds later, you’re brought to the app’s home screen.
The app’s UI is similarly simple – the feed is built on a familiar concept: it’s a scrollable list of events organized chronologically. Essentially it’s Facebook’s news feed, but confined to photos. If there are multiple pictures in a single post, they can be scrolled through horizontally, which is a nice touch.
At the top of the news feed sits a single row of thumbnails representing your own photos. These are only visible if you’ve scrolled to the top of the feed, and somewhat counterintuitively, they’re not photos from your Facebook account, but from your device’s on-board gallery. It breaks the division between online and local media that my brain automatically created in this UI paradigm, but on the plus side, it does provide fast access to gallery photos for posting. In contrast to the news feed’s treatment of multiple photos in a single post, the gallery photos can’t be scrolled through horizontally. The inconvenience is minor, but it’s not exactly a consistent user experience.
Speed, though, is another matter. “We spent a lot of time making the app very fast,” Facebook product manager Dirk Stoop told the New York Times. “The whole viewing experience is faster. The app launches really fast and it scrolls like butter.” He’s not exaggerating; the app’s performance is perfectly smooth.
The feed itself replicates Instagram’s layout and functionality almost exactly. You can comment on or like individual photos, and see who else has done so.
Taking A Photo
At the leftmost edge of the thumbnail row I mentioned earlier sits a camera icon. Tapping it launches the viewfinder mode, whose operation is straightforward. On my 2012-edition iPad, though, the viewfinder imagery is stuttery, with very low refresh rates. This doesn’t appear to affect the quality of photos; they come out looking just as nice as they do using the stock camera app. After taking the photo, you’re taken to an editing screen, which is where more of the Instagram-esque features come into play.
I was pretty disappointed with the filters included with the app. It’s not that you’re given too few options, though. The selection includes fifteen choices: Normal, Contrast, Cool, Light, Emerald, Bright, Golden, Copper, Rouge, Cream, Coffee, Highlight, Boost, Neon, B+W. The names are uninspired compared with their Instagram kin, but that wouldn’t put me off too much if the results they delivered were any good.
They’re really not.
Sure, the filters do what they’re supposed to; some apply different color schemes and lighting conditions, and quite a few others provide that classic “been sitting in the sun for seventeen years” look. But none of the fun is present. The filters do a great job of draining the life out of photos, but there aren’t many that actually make pictures look better. Also, there are no frames or border options offered. Instagram’s frames might be played out, overstated, and overused, but they add some flair to the photos that’s absent here.
All of this is subjective, of course; many will say that Instagram doesn’t do a good job of making photos look better, either. And honestly, I’d be interested to see if I could tell which filters came from which apps in an un-captioned comparison.
There’s also no analog to Instagram’s “Lux” mode, the HDR setting that can mean the difference between a flat, dull photo, and one that bursts with dimension and texture that only the lazy push of a single button can provide.
No but really, I wish there was HDR.
Once we get back to Facebook-centric tasks like sharing, the app starts to shine again. You can post a comment along with your picture, affix tags and location, and control which of your friend circles received what updates. The app also sports one of the easiest means of sharing multiple images that I’ve seen. It’s totally painless.
Even if you haven’t chosen to slap on one of the filters that Facebook provides, there’s another benefit to Facebook Camera. As Stoop told the Times, “Facebook Camera lets you upload much higher resolution photos at up to 2,048 by 2,048 pixels wide.” Apparently that’s higher resolution than the Facebook app for iOS, though I couldn’t see a measurable difference (outside of file size) when I downloaded both shots to my computer.
There’s no support for hash-tagging, of course, as the photos you share go not to a dedicated photo social network, but to Facebook.
A Confusing Choice
I’m not really sure why Facebook decided to release this app. Though its user base of 900 million dwarfs Instagram’s 40 million, I don’t understand why Facebook would want to expose those users to an app which will ultimately be supplanted by or merged with Instagram once the acquisition completes.
Of course, that kind of vast, early exposure could well be the reason for the release: get a large percentage of the user based accustomed to Facebook Camera, then fold them into the Instagram pool when the time comes. Thus, the work of selling users on a new feature is done ahead of time, and once the enhanced feature set of Instagram is brought to bear, there’s one more compelling reason not to leave Facebook– and one more possible future avenue for advertisements.
Plus, it’s pretty clear that Facebook has been working on this app for a while; given the potential benefits just mentioned, there’s no reason to trash it just because of a future -and still incomplete- acquisition.
It’ll be interesting to see how this develops going forward. But in the meantime, though you may call me names for it, I’ll still be using what I consider to be the more-capable platform for my social photo sharing: Instagram.
Source: The New York Times