Mike Isaac

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As Facebook Launches a Standalone Camera App, the Instagram Buy Comes Into Focus

We know that Facebook is serious about photos. Heck, it dropped a cool $1 billion on Instagram, the immensely popular mobile photo-sharing app.

What we didn’t know, however, is that Facebook was essentially building its own version of a standalone mobile photo-sharing application, ostensibly to compete with Instagram before it took over the mobile photo-sharing world completely.

How do I know that? Because Facebook will launch the product this afternoon in Apple’s App Store.

It’s called Facebook Camera, and it’s essentially Instagram redux. One, it’s a standalone Facebook application, separate from the Facebook app proper, much like the company’s Facebook Messages app. Facebook Photos product manager Dirk Stoop told me in an interview this morning that it’s an instant portal to one of Facebook’s largest use cases: Photo sharing.

Secondly — and I cannot stress this point enough — Facebook seems to have learned a heck of a lot from Instagram. Photos in Facebook Camera are full-bleed, spanning the entire width of the iPhone’s screen (which was probably tested when Facebook tweaked the photo experience for mobile last week). You’re able to comment and “Like” photos directly from the stream. And, of course, there are filters (albeit ones with names nowhere near as fun as Toaster or Valencia).

More than this, it’s very lightweight. The app moves much faster than browsing photos within Facebook. And by introducing a separate camera app, it’s another way of bypassing the cumbersome, clicky process of adding pictures via the main Facebook app.

It would be nice if the main Facebook app could just work this well, but Stoop said that this app was the brainchild of the dedicated Photos team he spearheads. That means moving faster, and breaking — then repairing — things quicker.

“Having separate teams focus on their area of expertise allows us to innovate faster,” Stoop told me. “Which, eventually, helps to integrate features into the mainline product.” There’s hope, then, that Facebook’s main app will actually get better.

There is, of course, a way around all of this photo-sharing friction: If Facebook were to integrate with iOS just as Twitter has, iPhone users could instantly upload photos to Facebook, straight from the iOS camera app. Stoop didn’t comment when I mentioned as much in our conversation.

So yes, the app is slick. And yes, it’s a fast portal into mobile photo-sharing, the likes of which Facebook needs. But it’s skirting the billion-dollar elephant in the room: Why build another camera app when you just dropped a ton of cash on one last month?

Two things: One, the Instagram deal hasn’t actually closed yet. It’s still purportedly being probed by the FTC, and that could take time to finish. And two, Stoop’s team was most likely working on this product long before buying Instagram was ever a real possibility. Stoop confirmed to me that Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom and his team had nothing to do with building Facebook Camera.

But now that Facebook Camera is finally coming to the App Store a month after the Instagram purchase, the whole deal is starting to make a lot more sense. With Instagram’s rapid rise to prominence in quickly garnering a strong user base, Facebook had to have seen the writing on the wall. Tens of millions of users signed up in the span of two years. And the app surpassed 50 million downloads after finally being released on Android earlier this year.

In essence, Instagram was taking over mobile photos, and Facebook couldn’t wait around and watch the company snap up every user while still working on perfecting the Facebook Camera app.

It’ll be interesting to see just how Facebook integrates Instagram’s user base into Facebook over time. It’s odd, too, that Facebook would launch a standalone Camera app, especially when it’s likely that the acquisition will go through. Still, perhaps a mashup of the two apps is on the road map eventually, despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s protestations that Instagram will maintain its autonomy.

Or perhaps Facebook itself doesn’t even know quite yet.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google