Summary:

New findings suggest iOS could be on the verge of getting a system-wide, social, photo-sharing feature. While it spells trouble for Instragram, Color and other similar apps, it’s great new for a mobile OS that, until now, hasn’t come out of its social shell.

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An iPhone owner recently uncovered evidence (via 9t05Mac) of a social photo sharing component built in to iOS 4.3 when using a third-party image editing app. The app revealed a normally invisible album exists within the iPhone’s photo library specifically for “Photo Stream” albums. Information suggests this is a social, photo-sharing feature not yet active in iOS, and one that might be on track for the release of iOS 5.

Previous evidence regarding an iOS Photo Stream feature, which came by way of earlier digging through iOS 4.3 code, appeared back in January. Basically, the system seems to work by allowing users to create publicly viewable albums which will automatically update on other users’ devices, so long as those devices are subscribed to and have the proper permissions to view the stream.

The new discovery shows the system is largely already in place throughout iOS, with Apple likely only needing to flick a switch to turn it on in the next major update of its mobile software platform. It also shows that Photo Streams should be available to third-party apps, and that apps will also potentially be able to publish directly to shared Streams, building into iOS a system-wide, photo-sharing social network that may compete with the likes of Instagram, Path and Color. In fact, if Apple makes social photo sharing available to all, built-in and easy to use, those apps may have a hard time staying afloat. HDR photo apps aren’t exactly burning up the charts since Apple baked that into iOS 4.1, for example.

Apple is also thought to be working on a major revision of its MobileMe cloud services package. The new MobileMe is rumored to be free, and include a number of social networking features, including a “Find my Friends” Google Latitude-type service. It could be that Photo Stream hasn’t yet been released because it ties in tightly with an overhauled MobileMe, so both services need to launch at the same time. In fact, it’s almost a lock that photos shared this way would be stored in the cloud (device-to-device always-on sharing isn’t practical in terms of battery life), but whether or not it would fall under the brand umbrella of MobileMe specifically is another question altogether.

iOS needs to deliver something big to jumpstart iPhone growth in the wake of Android competition, especially if Apple isn’t planning on unveiling new hardware in June (something I still think is unlikely). Built-in, system-wide social sharing features that turn iOS ownership into social network membership is precisely the kind of thing that could shake up the market, especially if Apple makes the smart move and provides such features free for all device owners.

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