Instagram’s Kevin Systrom on Mobile Development [Video]

Instagram’s Kevin Systrom spoke with me last year at the Mobilize conference in San Francisco. The subject: some insights into the development efforts behind product. Now the Instagram’s been acquired by Facebook for a cool $1 billion, it’s worth taking another look at what Kevin had to say.

His tips:

Understand the Difficulties of Mobile Development vs. the Web

Compared to mobile, Web development is easy. Mobile development simply compounds the problems you have online. Systrom’s examples:

  • More languages to manage – You have to deal with languages beyond HTML and Javascript, such as Objective-C and other native languages.
  • Phone behavior varies – Computer access is standardized. Not so with phones.
  • Manage connectivity – Not a concern with Web apps today, but a huge concern with phone apps that fall into the EDGE network or disconnect completely. How can your app handle that? Many simply shut down or freeze once the phone hits EDGE. You have to optimize your output for speed and inactivity of the network.

The Best Feature is Less Features

There are an endless number of photo sharing apps. How did Instagram succeed in such a crowded field? Systrom believes their success has to do with elements they didn’t put into the app. They purposely removed extraneous features and made it simple to use.

For example, to Systrom speed of upload is a major feature of Instagram. One way to get there was to reduce the quality of images. It’s kind of counterintuitive to a photo app, but it worked. In the most recent update of Instagram, filter render times have been reduced from four seconds down to four milliseconds. That’s made a huge impact on application speed.

Also filters, which traditionally have been an extra unused add-on slapped onto most image editing and sharing programs, are actually integral to the upload process for Instagram, used for two thirds of all uploads.

Move Quickly and Get the Details Right

“Putting out half-baked apps in mobile is the worst thing you can do,” says Systrom.

While users will put up with lack of functionality in Web development, and you have the flexibility of multiple iterations, mobile’s not the same. Systrom’s advice is to do fewer things, but do them better. Focus on the details that matter.

Systrom suggests you list out three things that matter most about your app and make sure every detail about them is working. For Instagram those things were application speed, distribution to other networks, and speed of upload.

Photo: AleksGrynis.

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