App Developers: Stop Making Photo/Video Apps!

App Developers: Stop Making Photo/Video Apps!

The explosion of the app development industry after the colossal growth of smartphone and tablet products in the market started out as a fantastic new tech segment worth watching. It has contributed significantly the rebirth of my beloved Bay Area and Silicon Valley. However, in recent months, this once proud and innovative space has devolved into an overcrowded, hyper competitive and absurdly redundant “look at me” marketplace. This is probably most true for apps based on taking and sharing photos and videos, and I’m getting really sick of it.

What was once a proud medium full of incredible innovation is now overly saturated with drivel. Thousands of camera apps, .gif generators, video manipulators and photo sharing concepts, most of them half-baked and poorly executed gum up the App Store and Google Play.

A great many of these apps are touted as “the next great thing” by some independent developer who has recently secured a couple million in seed funding. Rarely have I found an app to really be this wonderful addition to my life that the overblown marketing strategy tries to sell to me. Millions of dollars are dumped into apps that are either incomplete or just cut and paste copies with minor tweaks.

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And it’s not just from the venture capitalist-backed start-ups, major companies are guilty of this too. Do I really need Facebook Camera? Is anyone even using that app? Photoshop Touch is cool and works pretty well, but is it really necessary? Maybe I would be less critical if they were one of a few great options in the space, but they aren’t. They are among thousands of similar apps that just do the same thing.

Last year I tried to work my way through the iPhone App Store options for photo and video apps and review the ones that waded or floated to the top of this muddy cesspool, but found myself unable to make any progress. Every time I would get a new app, four more would appear, each claiming to drastically alter my life. Check out this feature! Look over here, more filters! Share with your friends over here! The catcalls never seemed to end.

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After downloading a few, seeking this altered state of being that was advertised as a sort of iPhone Nirvana, I realized this perfect dream world was never going to become reality. Each app had its own somewhat unique gimmick that was supposed to appeal to me in some way, but I was seeing a trend: what started out as a way for me to fill up my toolbox with wrenches, saws, and screwdrivers, was materializing into a drawer full of hammers. It just doesn’t make sense.

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At this point, the situation got even worse. App developers realized how congested the space had become, and began the desperate fight to break out of it. The strategy became to push even more gimmicks and “unique features” that were supposed to jump out at me and earn my $0.99 investment. “Add Cool Text Effects!” or “35 Different Artisanal Borders!” or my personal favorite “LENZ FLAREZ!” These are bad enough in my opinion, but then they started becoming “only allows upload once per day” and “must take photos and share in custom app network” that is not compatible with Facebook or Twitter without crashing your phone through some crippling error.

[Via xkcd]

Since when did adding limitations become a marketable feature? The “upload once per day” example is for an app called Days that I read in a TechCrunch review last month. For the sake of example, let’s focus on this app for a minute.

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The concept of Days hinges on two things: 1) You need to photograph nearly every moment of every day. That’s the intent, and that’s what Days encourages you to do. I’m talking like at least 50 photos a day. 2) Days will only allow one upload, through its app interface, once per day. This upload makes a collage of the day’s images and shares that collage on the Days social sharing platform. Ok sounds interesting. Maybe. It’s not.

The idea of taking upwards of 50 photos a day is my first issue. The app makers actually emphasize quantity over quality. They want to saturate their social sharing engine with tons of, at best, mediocre images. Why are we encouraging this? Do you know what the standard day will look like for 95% of the population? Train ride. Traffic. Desk. Food on desk. Computer monitor. Conference room. Traffic. Dinner. TV. Rinse. Repeat. Maybe throw in a picture of my alarm clock as I set it for the next day of waking up to exactly the same thing. Yes it’s depressing, yes it’s what most people in this country deal with, and no I don’t need to be reminded of it on a daily basis.

But I’m willing to look past this, as it is technically pushing us in a direction we aren’t currently going, and that’s the basis of innovation. I don’t think it’s good innovation, but that’s my opinion. Maybe you like it. Where I take real issue is the hype over not being able to control when it uploads your collage of boring daily activity. The review I read actually was excited about limiting uploads to once per day, going so far as to say “Mind. Blown.” It made it sound like the coolest thing ever. It’s not. We’ve been down this road before. It’s called scrap booking. When the idea of moving backwards becomes synonymous with moving forwards, we’ve reached the peak of the parabola. The bubble is close to bursting.

I suppose the point of this article, other than to express my exasperation to a deteriorating industry, is to beg for companies to just think a little harder. Maybe spend a few more minutes in an office to ponder “are we making the space better with this product, or just making a product for the sake of it?” or “It is really innovative, or just taking an old idea and slapping lipstick on it?” I think this push to release hackneyed, half-baked apps into the market is fed by investors throwing money every which way in the hopes that the app will be the next Instagram. Instagram is great. It does what its supposed to do and it was really the first to do it in a publicly accepted way. It got a huge user base. That user base is what determines the value of the product, not necessarily the product itself. Instagram recently characterized themselves as not a photography company. This, as weird as it may initially sound, makes perfect sense. None of these apps are about photography. They are about pulling enough buzz to create enough of a user base to create some sort of perceived value they can then cash in on. It’s why Pandora keeps touting their massive user base, a user base that when examined doesn’t correlate with population density (200 million users and not a single one a multiple account set to evade listening limits? I’m not buying it). No one said they had to be active users. Instagram as software is not worth a billion dollars. Instagram’s user base was the target. The idea is create a big user base, get a big payoff. This strategy fails 99% of the time, but it doesn’t stop bad apps from entering the market in the vain hope they will be the exception.

This app developer bubble, much like the tech bubble before it, will burst. I just pray it doesn’t take down too many good people in the process, although it might contribute to some rental price drops that would be much appreciated to my depleted bank account.

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Tam Nguyen's picture

I particularly enjoy that XKCD reference :)

I personally think Photoshop Touch is necessary, but that is just me. There will be a shake of all these kind of apps. This is the natural order of things.

This problem sounds familiar. There's also too much mediocre music out there. =/

Bruno Inácio's picture

In this POV also 99% of Hollywood movies. :D

My point. =]

and to many mediocre photographers as well.

Bruno Inácio's picture

Interesting Article. Thanks.

thank you for making me not feel crazy... i was loosing it today with these thoughts and ranting to my friends... the real photographers/videographers in the world know whats going on and where this is going...

"This app developer bubble, much like the tech bubble before it, will burst."

Couldnt have said it better myself.

I think trying to fight for social sharing photo site is silly right now. I really don't see anyone dislodging Instagram and Flickr. I think what we'll see is people that want to shoot and edit on the iPhone will start relying on just a few powerful apps that they know well. Say, the gimmicky editing stuff (lens flares, crops, lettering and general curves, saturation stuff) that's quite easy to do be taken on by a single app like photoshop touch, Aviary or snapseed. Then we might see a few specialty apps that do only a few things but really well like VSCO cam. Lastly we'll see some kind of app that adds features while taking the picture like more manual control or showing a histogram while shooting, something to sort through your pictures and lastly a way to share them on the web.

I have an idea for a photo app that I'm currently debating if I should peruse. I would build it as a one trick pony, import your image, use it and out it would come. But you guys have got me thinking. Even though this app would bring something new to the table (and no it doesn't have to do gimmicky filters/crops or lettering and it's not a sharing site) I'm worried that it would be very hard to get people to look at it without going 'oh just another filter app'.

Jaron Schneider's picture

I never said we should stop using photo sharing apps that exist. Flickr and Instagram do their jobs well. What I am saying is that developers who are making apps that do what other apps already do, or do it worse yet claim that worse experience as a feature, are where the problem lies.

I totally agree with you, actually you summarized the intention of my long winded post in 2 sentences. Maybe I didn't come across as I wanted to...

Flickr may have shot themselves by hiding the social aspects of their site with their redesign last week. Photogs are leaving for ipernity, 500px etc. Flickr may change into a new Instagram. Obviously Yahoo never figured out how to use that vast metadata.

I like your app idea if it is unique: I use a few such apps like Popsicolor, Percolator or MobileMonet.

" The app makers actually emphasize quantity over quality. " It worked for Instagram didn't it?

Jaron Schneider's picture

And unfortunately, that's part of the problem.

Jason Ranalli's picture

Look at the guy's profile at the bottom of the TechCrunch article. He got 1.2 million to fund his "company" which is essentially just like any other startup where the strategy is "throw complete BS at a wall and see what sticks while wearing jeans to work where you have fully stocked fridges with food and Mountain Dew." Rinse and repeat until the money runs out and move like locusts to the next group to fund the next startup company. I'm in the wrong business.

Frankly, Instagram was probably no different so I can't blame these companies for trying. If someone told me that Instagram would be a hit I would have thrown them out of my office because FB already had the same functionality in a nutshell. But Instagram has the "trendy" vibe going for it....retro-filters, square pictures, semi-cryptic hashtag use, hipster cred, etc.

Jaron Schneider's picture

You got it. And that's why the bubble will burst. At a certain point, the market can't handle any more and the bottom, which here is made of paper mache, will fall collapse.

As an small developer, I couldn't agree more with you Jason.
I created an app that is different and completely unique. it doesn't do filters, effects, add borders or is a "better" camera. It's meant to give ideas and inspire photographers.

I'm a photographer and an educator myself, and am passionate about about photography and love infecting others with that passion. I think I have a great tool to do that....
and yet they get buried under apps that all do the same thing or are just stupid. (CatPaint? really?)

As a one man team, I can't afford tons of advertizing, and have had to do all my marketing myself. I dont have any big backers, I didn't do a kickstarter...I've been working non stop since launch to get the word out.

I've had some limited success, but anytime I gain a bit of ground, more crap apps pop up and push mine back down.

pretty much all the feedback and reviews that I have been able to get have been positive (but admittedly, the design needs some work) but I just can't seem to get the momentum.
(I've made a lot of newb mistakes and have only myself to blame for it)

Don't get me wrong, I've made the money back I've spent in time to create the app. I wasn't out to get rich, but the "dream" was to make enough to be able to quit the daily grind and just follow my true passion, teaching photography.
Maybe it can still happen. Who knows?

But I think the get rich on the appstore days are over for small devs, unless they are willing to take the big risk for a huge marketing push that may not pay off.

While I hope what you wish for comes to pass, I don't know if it's possible as almost anyone can put out an app these days if they have some money...
(or some skills and a belief in their idea like me)

Noel Chenier
(ps-I didn't comment on this post to promote my app, so I'm not going to mention it.)

I think the problem is that you admit that you made some mistakes and you obviously realize that your app isn't the best designed. Yet you believe that the problem is that you don't have the budget to market your not quite good app? No. Well, maybe that's a part of the problem. But the real problem is that your app is one of the crap apps. A good idea (which you may or may not have) poorly executed is still crap. If you want to rise above the crap, you have to create an excellent app, well designed, without the poor design, that is actually unique. Contrary to popular belief, there are not a lot of terrible apps out there making a lot of money. There are a lot of mediocre apps out there competing for not very much money and a lot of very good apps making reasonably good money and a few great apps making big bank.

I suspect, that if you have a great idea in your app, that truly is unique, you should keep working on it and eliminate the poor design and the mistakes that you admit that you have.. and you will be more successful. Success does not come from simply having the idea. It comes from having it, executing it, and THEN letting word of mouth and/or marketing take it from there.

And no, I'm not a hugely successful app developer, though I have achieved some level of success in other areas. The formula is no different. Be good first. Then you get the rewards. You don't get the rewards first, and then become good.

HI Matt

Thanks for your reply.

I don't believe my app is one of the crap ones.
That I judge from the reviews, ratings, and feedback I have received that, like I said, have been overwhelmingly positive. The design is the one aspect that needs some work, but I have yet to get a review recommending people not to buy the app because of it.

And I am taking all feedback I get, and am working on improvements to make it the best app it can be. The design is one of them.

You are obviously a straight shooter, so I'd be happy to give you a promo code if you want to let me know what you think about the app.


Noel Chenier


Melt yo mommah with fat jokes all day! Juicy.

Next is going to be the FLOOD OF STICKR APPS!!!!
Put mustaches on yo mommah.


Jaron, if I might say, I think you are thinking too rigid right now. I agree with you, but think about it - in the beginning there were only developers that wanted to make a difference in a space of no apps and full of possibilities. Then, the possibility to code apps became sort of mainstream and everyone could do it - hence the millions of lousy apps. Its natural, is organic and its growing.

This isn't a bubble that will burst because it is impossible... To burst and...wha? Every lousy app to vanish into oblivion? No, it isn't possible and the market is growing and it will grow more and more. It's like in an ordinary shop - lots of stuff we don't need (too many actually) and one, two that is worth buying. Same here.

That is why me, and others like me are relying on experts like you and other bloggers in photography industry to review those apps, to try them for us and to point us to the next great app. :)

Right now my situation is something like this: I have some apps I couldn't live without and some apps that have some features I can't find anywhere else (or I got used to). But I am still looking for new great apps that can bring other features I need and can't find, so there is room for innovation, for new and for unique ideas to come in the shape of fancy apps. There is, but it's getting harder and harder for that brilliance to come up to the surface, and that new best thing, to reach the proper audience needs great blogs and bloggers and reviewers who scout the market everyday for those little shiny glimpses to unveil it!

As a conclusion, its not worth it to fight against it, but to join it, request what you/we need and let them fight to make the best code that can deliver that to us. :)

Jaron - there is still plenty of innovation to be done in photosharing. Model T was the first, most successful car model - but surely wasn't the last. This is not a one winner takes it all market. If we in silicon valley take that approach no new developments will happen. We would still be using Friendster, Ryze, Yahoo messenger or Netscape browser - they all did the job "well enough". Needless to say I am developing a photosharing app - such craziness is what makes the valley what it is! Enjoy the ride! :-)

I would like to see an Fstoppers photo/video app. You can easily take pictures/video and quickly share it to the community so I can be told how fucking wrong I am by commenters.

I totally agree on the insane amount of choices out there.

Jaron Schneider's picture

I wish I could upvote this 10 times.

What would really help is for one person to "take one for the team", download and test every app, and let us all know which are worthy of a look and which are a waste of time.

So what your saying is "I can't be bothered to look so stop trying". Great.

I use Instagram, Tadaa, HDR FX Pro, Fotor and Cortex Cam