Distilled From Burbn, Instagram Makes Quick Beautiful Photos Social (Preview)

For about the past six months or so, I’ve been using an app called Burbn. Despite being in stealth mode, the app attracted quite a bit of buzz as it was in the location space and built entirely in HTML5. Oh, and the $500,000 investment from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz helped gather interest as well. But it turns out Burbn was a red herring of sorts. Or perhaps more appropriately, it was a testing ground. The product that emerged is much better: Instagram.

Unlike Burbn, Instagram is neither a location-based app (though that is one component), nor is it HTML5-based. But it did spring out of the way co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger saw people using Burbn. That is: quick, social sharing — and a desire to share photos from places. That’s the foundation of Instagram.

More specifically, Instagram is a iPhone photo-sharing application that allows you to apply interesting filters to your photos to make them really pop. The app will be launching in the coming weeks, but as a longtime Burbn user, I’ve had the opportunity to try it out over the past few weeks. And I’m happy to report that it’s very good.

A couple of my favorite apps on the iPhone currently are Hipstamatic and CameraBag. Like Instagram, both are photo apps that allow you to apply filters to pictures you take with the device. But both are fundamentally flawed in that neither has good sharing or discovery mechanisms. Put another way, neither are very social — at all. Instagram is. And it provides the same type of photo filter manipulation — and maybe even a little better.

Most mobile photos are like ‘meh’,” Systrom told me when I met with him and Krieger earlier today. But at the same time, cameras like the one found on the iPhone are replacing more expensive cameras because they are so much more convenient. So the team set out to make these pictures look better.

To do that, it actually involved quite a bit of math. Each of their filters mean doing math on every single pixel, Systrom noted. Currently, Instagram has 11 such filters, with more on the way. These filters range from Apollo (sort of moon-like) to Nashville (an orange/sepia tinge) to Gotham (dark). They can make even the most bland photo look interesting.

Once you take a picture and apply a filter (there’s also an option not to), the photo is shared into your Instagram Feed. From here, your friends on the site can “like” or comment on it. But another key to Instagram is that it’s just as easy to share these photos to other social networks — like Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr. To do that with CameraBag, for example, you have to use email — ugh.

And perhaps the best part is that all of this sharing is really, really fast. Systrom wouldn’t reveal how they get photos to seem like they upload so quickly, he would only called it their “special sauce.”

Once your photo is up on Instagram and accumulating likes and comments, you can see the activity around it in the “News” tab. This area current goes back three days and allows you to quickly reply to comments your photos may have received.

Another tab, called “Popular”, allows you to see the photos on Instagram that have received the most likes. This also serves as a good way to find new people to follow, Krieger noted. He said that going forward, discovery is going to be a key feature they’re working on.

But first, of course, they have to actually launch the app. As I noted above, it should be out in the next few weeks. When it launches, it will be a free download — another difference with CameraBag and Hipstamatic. So how will they make money? With plenty of funding for the two-man team, they’re not too concerned with that right now, but Systrom said that the app will launch with 7 of their 11 filters for free, and the other 4 will be available for in-app purchase (with more coming).

This model has worked well for Hipstamatic, as they’re the number 8 app overall right now in terms of top grossing apps in the App Store (these numbers include in-app purchases).

When I asked about the pivot away from location, Krieger noted that sometimes it’s useful for pictures, but sometimes people just don’t care — they just want to get the picture out there as quickly as possible. “We’re not a check-in app, we’re a life-sharing app,” Systrom added.

That said, there is still an option to check-in with Foursquare when you tag a picture to a specific venue (they are using Foursquare’s place database).

Krieger said that the idea for Instagram was to take what they learned from the relatively complex Burbn and focus on doing one of those things perfectly — in this case, social photo sharing. As regular readers may know, I’m a big fan of this idea.

Systrom also cited Fred Wilson’s recent post noting that startups are beginning to focus on mobile first now. The idea is that Instagram will start with the iPhone app and expand from there. While they haven’t even started thinking about Android yet, clearly that’s in the cards. And the web will be an important component of this too, Systrom noted.

Beyond Hipstamatic and CameraBag, Instagram faces a ton of competition from photo sharing apps such as Picplz and Treehouse. Systrom thinks a number of them are good, but feels their approach is different enough to separate from the pack.

Both Systrom and Krieger gradutaed from Stanford and were a part of the Mayfield Fellows Program – a joint program between the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and the Mayfield Fund. Most recently, Systrom was working at NextStop (recently acquired by Facebook) while Krieger was at Meebo. Before NextStop, Systrom spent a couple of years at Google, and before that he was an intern at Odeo — the company that eventually stepped aside to give birth to Twitter. Systrom noted he actually shared a desk with Twitter creator Jack Dorsey back in the day, and that Dorsey has been very helpful with Instagram/Burbn.

The duo is currently working out of the Dogpatch Labs in San Francisco. We’ll have a bit more on the app when Instagram actually launches in a few weeks. You can sign up here to get notified when it will be available.