Instagram: it does for photos what suits do for men.

If you like photography and have an iPhone you need to download Instagram right now.

Once done, you may continue reading.

Instagram is currently the hottest “it” app in the saturated world of photo sharing. Word even surfaced last week that Facebook made an attempt to buy Instagram and failed. Not surprising seeing as the beloved app, which launched in October 2010, has already racked up 7 million users and over 150 million photos. That’s… a lot.

It followed the basic recipe for start-up success:
1- Two co-founders
2- Wacky name
3- Absolutely no business model.

So, what does the app do? It takes a photos, applies one of several filters and allows for easy instant sharing across social networks. Users can add comments, tag locations and “like”. The magic comes from its ease of use and the gorgeous filters. It re-formats the photos into square images (as opposed to the iPhone’s traditional 2:3 ratio) and definitely borrows inspiration from the Polaroid era.

It can transform the simplest photo into a piece of art infused with nostalgia, emotional connectedness and mega hipster appeal. Allow me to demonstrate:

Before
After

It’s kind of like men and suits. Take the ugliest man, put him in a suit, and he will look good.

The company was developed by co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, and it only recently welcomed a 5th person to its svelte 4 member team. They also didn’t receive any major funding ($7 million) until February 2011. It’s the type of growth rate, leanness and VC interest a start-up can only dream of.

The website is minimal to say the least and the app’s viral growth has been primarily fueled by user interest and word of mouth. It’s proof that sometimes a great product can literally sell itself (not to be confused with making money, as the revenue model is still a major TBD).

Of course, where users flock, brands follow and Instagram is no exception. Many companies have hopped on the bandwagon amassing a decent number of followers including Red Bull, Kate Spade, Gucci, NPR, Jamie Oliver, Playboy and Starbucks. (Ah…Starbucks. It’s the Midas of social networking services. Whatever it touches turns to gold).

Instagram has also been used during major world events en mass. For example, it has chronicled Hurricane Irene and the riots in England. It’s more than just pretty filters (because there are a lot more advanced photo apps out there) – it’s a tool that has successfully been able to combine functionality, design and emotion.

It’s a modern app that brilliantly portrays the old adage of “a picture is worth a thousand words“.

I’m curious to see what the next steps for Instagram are going to be. There is a lot of speculation ranging from the obvious (an Android version) to the more complex (a web interface). Of course they can easily roll out tons of additional features which exist in other photo-sharing apps, whether it’s adding more filters or effects, superimposing text or sounds, making slideshows or videos, or creating a blog-ish interface like Tumblr or Posterous….BUT one of the best things about Instagram is its simplicity so it will be tricky. (How does one “grow” a product without making it more complicated?)

However one thing is for sure: they will have to monetize, and I hope not with banner ads. Maybe some “sponsored” filters (Skittles Double Rainbow!), premium filters, premium accounts (for brands and businesses), or charging developers building 3rd party apps for the Instragram API. Many are using it already.

Another great thing about Instagram it that it’s a perfect example of why I love apps: it allows anybody to do anything, in under 5 seconds. Before if you wanted to manipulate photos digitally, edit a home video, record a song, doodle a comic strip, or cook a steak to perfection it took TIME, SKILL and EFFORT. None of these are requirements anymore.

I admit that this kind of weird. It’s not just instant gratification at the “where is the nearest Ikea?” level, but in an emotional “wow, look at that” way. It’s almost as if the idea of “art” is evolving because anybody can do it so easily now (using apps of course). Maybe the new art is developing the apps that do the art. Developers are the new artists. Code is the new paint. Screens are the new canvases. It’s beautiful and you guys are talented.

Anyway. Neat app. Long live Instagram. I’d rather juggle several apps that do one thing well than a monster who tries to do everything. Foursquare won the check-in war, and my bets are on Instagram for the photo one.

Follow me on Instagram (parisafoster).

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