With the exploding popularity of Instagram (s fb), the social photo app that now counts more than 100 million monthly active users, it could be easy to forget that you ever shared your iPhone photos any other way. But remember Hipstamatic? The iPhone-exclusive app was one of the early ones that captured the attention of mobile photographers with square frames and filters, but ultimately, it missed the boat on social. And for many people, the rest is history.
But it seems Hipstamatic isn’t dead quite yet. While the company laid off its engineering team last summer and has tried a few others social apps in the past that didn’t catch on, it plans to announce the debut of Oggl on Wednesday, a standalone app to serve as a social network for your Hipstamatic photos. It will also introduce the ability for users to subscribe to Hipstamatic for exclusive filters.
Even more broadly, it seems Hipstamatic is trying to position itself as the photography app for the true artist, not necessarily for anyone with an iPhone. At the company’s press event in San Francisco on Tuesday, CEO Lucas Buick quoted famous photographer Ansel Adams, showed the work of photojournalist Damon Winter, and referred to features with words like “filters,” “lenses,” and “new gear,” — the types of phrases you hear from serious photographers.
In other words, this is not the app for your selfies.
“We’re trying to build this little empire for photo nerds,” Buick told me. “We’re not trying to build something to be a new communication tool. It’s really an art tool.”
The traditional Hipstamatic app will stay the same for those who want to keep using it, but Oggl will provide the same photo-taking capabilities while also allowing users to share those photos into a feed — very much like Instagram. And most importantly, users can still share photos to other apps including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Foursquare. The app adds a feature I’ve always wished Instagram would adopt, which is basically a photo retweet, or the ability to re-post someone else’s photo that you like. For now, you still have to take your photo in the Hipstamatic app, preventing people from uploading photos they took with a “real” camera and slapping on a filter.
The app will launch in Apple’s App Store (s aapl) this week, and will at first become available on an invite-only basis as it rolls out slowly to users. The app is free to download, with the option to subscribe for 99 cents per month, or $10 per year, for access to special filters and other features.
There’s no question that the addition of a Hipstamatic feed where I can check out my friend’s photos would make me far more likely to use the app. Previously, Hipstamatic wasn’t a destination — it was a camera tool. But that could change; the Hipstamatic filters and photo processing somehow feel more high-quality and expansive than the options on Instagram. Plus, the sharing features that allow me to take photos in Hipstamatic and send them elsewhere is great, especially as social apps are increasingly building silos around content.
There are aspects of Oggl that feel cluttered and confusing. The requirement that you take your photos in Hipstamatic rather than upload them from the camera roll is a real deal-killer. When I’m out on a hike or walking down a busy city street, I want to be able to quickly snap a photo to filter and share on Instagram later. If I have to open an app, there are a lot of photos I’d never take. And the navigation on Oggl between the camera, the multiple filters and lenses, the main feed, and the sharing options isn’t terribly clear.
But using Oggl, I’m reminded of why I initially fell in love with Instagram. As CEO Kevin Systrom has highlighted before, it’s all about the simplicity. Scroll, heart, snap, filter, share. That’s it.
The app’s confusing nature, and Buick’s discussion of Hipstamatic as a “lifestyle brand” in addition to being an app could reflect some of the turmoil and changes the company has faced since Instagram’s rise, which Fast Company examined in a three-part profile of the company’s struggles. Buick said that after Facebook bought Instagram, “everyone thinks they need to buy Hipstamtic,” but that he’s committed to remaining independent of both an external owner or venture funding.
“For us, the biggest challenge is to find ourselves and not forget what we’re doing,” he told me.
So it’s possible that Oggl is too little too late when it comes to social photo apps. But it’s also worth considering that if Instagram starts integrating even further with Facebook over the next few years, and if more sponsored content or advertising starts showing up in Instagram feeds (which isn’t a remote possibility), users could tire of Instagram and start looking for another solution.
And if Hipstamatic sticks around, it could be a good choice.