Instagram's Layout helps Facebook take over your phone one app at a time
Instagram has made a new app.
It lets people take several photos, mash them together, and turn them into collages that can then be shared to various sites. (Obviously it would prefer if those sites were named Instagram or Facebook.) It's called Layout, and early impressions of the app seem to be mostly positive.
Many have suggested that Instagram released Layout as a separate app because the company wants to keep its main app simple. Better to launch individual apps like Layout and Hyperlapse, the video stabilization app the company released August 2014, than to confuse people.
But I suspect releasing these utilities as standalone apps instead of mere updates to the main Instagram offering isn't only motivated by the company's supposed commitment to simplicity. It's probably also about helping Facebook take over everyone's smartphones, one additional application at a time.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told the New York Times last year that his company made "one big blue app that approximated the desktop presence" when it first made the jump to smartphones. Now, years later, it's "basically unbundling the big blue app" with smaller, more-focused software.
This could make it easier for people to use Facebook's products. No one wants to spend their days with software that tries to do so many things it ends up being a mediocre Swiss Army knife instead of an excellent single-purpose tool. It could also help Facebook convince people it makes the only apps they need.
By adopting this approach, Facebook has become like an off-brand manufacturer of popular existing services. Snapchat becomes Slingshot. Reddit becomes Rooms. A few years ago, the company even tried to create its own Instagram knock-off, Facebook Camera. But unlike Oreo's infamous coup of Hydrox's throne, none of these imitators have managed to overthrow the apps and services with which they compete.
Yet the company continues to make more of these secondhand products. Why? Probably because Facebook knows that a smartphone home screen has limited space, and if it manages to make at least some of these mimics stick, it can take control of mobile devices without having to make its own platform. Until then, all it has to do is rip various aspects of its service out from its "big blue app."
That's where Instagram comes in. The service was so simple when it was acquired that many additional features can be introduced as standalone apps and explained away by claiming it doesn't want to make things complicated. It gets to take over people's smartphones, those people get access to new apps, and Facebook gets to control even more of the home screen. Everyone wins.
Except for the people who prefer cohesive software over splintered apps. (Remember the furor when Facebook made its users download Messenger, its dedicated communications app, instead of simply messaging each other via its main app?) To those people, the message is clear: You can either install a mess of apps to get the most out of Facebook and Instagram, or you can shove it.
[illustration by Hallie Bateman]