What Instagram-Facebook tells us about BPM and Mobile

Scott Francis
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In light of the discussion about Mobile and BPM recently, I thought the Instagram purchase by Facebook was quite interesting. Om Malik’s GigaOm has a great article on the topic.
My translation: Facebook was scared shitless and knew that for first time in its life it arguably had a competitor that could not only eat its lunch, but also destroy its future prospects. Why? Because Facebook is essentially about photos, and Instagram had found and attacked Facebook’s achilles heel — mobile photo sharing.
Not that Instagram necessarily set out to attack the Achilles heel, but they definitely found it. But why would it be Facebook’s Achilles heel?  Partly because Facebook started in the era pre-iPhone.  Oh I could say pre-smartphone but that is really disingenuous.  It is the iPhone of 2007 that changed things.  It took successful companies like Facebook longer to come around to the importance of the mobile phone than it did for upstarts like Instagram.  If Facebook had been struggling in 2009, no doubt they would have focused on mobile to find a wedge to compete against the likes of MySpace.  But they weren’t struggling, they were thriving. They were busy scaling to a few hundred million users.  They can be forgiven for not realizing that mobile wasn’t just a target platform, but a new source of value and competition. Because Facebook saw mobile as just a target platform to hit (with a little different UI than a browser), the optimization was around cost – namely development and design cost.  Focus on HTML5, and a cross-platform experience that is hard to differentiate from what you’d get in a browser.  Voila!  One app to rule them all – it runs on Android, iOS, Blackberry, and Windows Phone, with possibly only minor tweaks. But users don’t love HTML5 apps.  They love native apps.  Instagram created the native photo-sharing app that people love to use. Dave Brakoniecki assigns the real cause-and-effect to the idea that Instagram was solving a different problem than Facebook:
The problem with photo uploading for every site on the internet has always been the hassle of getting your photos from your digital camera to the cloud. Here is a pretty standard running order of events from 5 years ago or less:
  1. Take photos on your digital camera
  2. Transfer photos to your computer
  3. Edit or process photos as required
  4. Upload the photos to the cloud
  5. Tag and release them for public consumption
It’s a lot of steps and a fairly big hassle to actually get photos from your digital camera to a website to share them. Interestingly, most websites can do very little to reduce this hassle because they only control a couple of steps in the process. The basic outline above is true for Flickr when it sold in 2005 and Facebook today. Even photo specialist sites like Smugmug pretty much follow the same flow.
However, I can take and post a photo directly from Facebook.  The problem is that the Facebook app isn’t JUST about taking and sharing photos – there’s a ton of other stuff going on in that app. By the time I’m taking a picture I’ve probably missed the moment.  So I take a picture with the Camera app, then open up Facebook at my leisure and share the photo I’ve already taken from the Camera roll.  I don’t think the process was that different – it was the *experience* that was dramatically different. The Facebook mobile photo sharing experience was sub-par.  Instagram’s is great. And their filters can hide a lot of the bad photography being taken(!)… Dave’s skeptical that the real, general, answer is that mobile-first makes for a good entrepreneurial approach.  He wraps with:
If you are looking for technology trends to invest in, mobile first is a great bet but you have the luxury of a portfolio approach. You can play the numbers. If you are an entrepreneur, you have one shot so, before you decide that all you need is an iphone app and a holding page on the web, best think long and hard about the actual problem you are trying to solve.
He’s right. But let’s flip the coin to the other side.  If you’re looking for a way to disrupt an incumbent company, mobile first is – in many market segments – a fantastic way to do it.  Just as being cloud-first was a fantastic way to disrupt many other market segments.  Some of those cloud-disrupters are now vulnerable to being disrupted by good mobile-first startups.  Not every problem is susceptible to a good mobile-first strategy – but if you’re not going mobile-first you should at least be able to explain why you’re ruling it out. Returning to BPM: if you’re rolling out new processes for your firm, mobile first in your process design may lead you to surprising improvements in process, and may even lead you to disrupt competition.  

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