Last week, Instagram hit 27 million users, solidifying it not only as one of the most popular photo-sharing services on the market, but as one of the world's fastest-growing social networks. What's especially remarkable about Instagram's rocketing growth—its user base has tripled in the last six months—is that the startup has managed to goose engagement all from within the silo of an essentially walled-off platform: The app is available only on the iPhone (an Android version is on the horizon), and while users can push Instagram photos out to other social networks, they haven't yet been able to push photos into Instagram from other services—unlike on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Flickr, which allow imports from basically anywhere.
That's all about to change. Later today, Hipstamatic is set to unveil a partnership with Instagram that allows photos taken on the camera app, which enables users to snap professional-looking pictures with stylized films and vintage-era lenses, to be ported directly into Instagram's network with just one click. It represents the first time Instagram has opened up this platform API to third parties, and marks a move toward letting photos freely flow into Instagram's network from outside sources. "When we launched, it was all about Facebook and Flickr and Twitter, and now we're seeing a huge shift in our user base toward Instagram," says Hipstamatic cofounder and CEO Lucas Buick. "We've never been a social networking company, but we clearly benefit from social networks. So this will be the first app outside of Instagram that lets you into their network. That's pretty cool for us."
Now, when users snap a pic on Hipstamatic, they'll have the option to push the photo to Instagram, just as one might push a Foursquare check-in to Twitter. Users can auto-tag the photo with the particular lens, film, and flash used, and add a comment—all from Hipstamatic.
On Instagram, the photo will appear with attribution: Taken with Hipstamatic. "Really it all comes down to this: People post Hipstamatic photos on Instagram all the time, and we just want to make that experience easier," says Instagram CEO and cofounder Kevin Systrom. "It's a step in the direction that we're testing out. We've been very careful about making sure that Instagram photos are about what's happening right now in your life, and we want to allow for more of those photos to end up on Instagram regardless of where they're taken."
Both Systrom and Buick see the partnership as mutually beneficial. At least for now, Hipstamatic will have exclusive access to Instagram's network, and will likely receive a huge amount of promotion from the tags hugging underneath every ported photograph. When users click on the Hipstamtic attribution in Instagram, for example, they'll be given the option to open Hipstamatic. If a user doesn't have the app, he or she will be directed to Apple's app store to download it. That could lead to a big boost in revenue for Hipstamatic, which costs $1.99 and sells digital-camera upgrades (lenses, films, flashes) within its app. (There is no rev-share for Hipstamatic transactions generated by Instagram.)
For Instagram, the partnership provides the network with access to Hipstamatic's high-quality content creators—a photography community of 4 million users who upload 48 million photos per month. (Hipstamatic boasts photojournalists such as the New York Times' Damon Winter, who used the service to win a Pictures of the Year International prize; the startup also partners with brands, such as Nike and Vogue, to feature custom lenses.)
Most significantly, however, the partnership helps frame Instagram as a social networking platform—a platform that other services will contribute to in the future, and one that could soon see ports from Camera+ and other camera apps. "I'd imagine if the experiment takes off that you'd likely see more API clients being allowed to do the same in the future," Systrom says.
Hipstamatic is leading the charge. "The biggest thing for us was trying to make sure we could get the right style form," says Buick. "We thought it was time we help our users out by making it a little bit easier than having to shoot with Hipstamatic, open Instagram, try to crop it, and then hashtag all of the equipment that they use."
Developers from Hipstamatic and Instagram have been working for the last few weeks on the project, a synergy that demonstrates how like-minded companies can work to complement each other, rather than in competition, as some have suggested. The startups have much in common: Apple selected Hipstamatic as the iPhone app of the year in 2010, and awarded Instagram the title for 2011. Both services offer a wide range of filters, and are only available on the iPhone. They share a lean-startup philosophy, too, with each company having only about a dozen employees. And they're also both seeing early signs of big success, though from different perspectives: Instagram is said to be on the verge of raising a $40 million funding round at a $500 million valuation; Hipstamatic, on the other hand, has not raised a dime of VC funding, but has been profitable since its second week. Last year, Hipstamatic generated about $10 million in revenue.
[Image: Flickr user Casey Muir-Taylor]