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Facebook eats itself

Social networking firm launches rival to Instagram, on which it just spent $1bn.

Photograph: Getty Images

Facebook has launched its own smartphone photography application, just six weeks after its controversial $1 billion Instagram acquisition. But why would it want to effectively compete with itself?

Facebook's new mobile photography app, simply named 'Camera', is the latest attempt by the company to better integrate its social media platform with smartphones - a weakness the company acknowledged in its recent – and troubled – IPO.

Just six weeks ago Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the controversial purchase of Instagram for $1bn, a revenue-less, profitless start up photography application provider that has proven popular with the young and trendy, especially the 'hipster' demographic.

 The two apps share much in common, but for now Zuckerberg has said that Instagram will be run as its own entity, without being folded into Facebook proper.

Photography-wise, it's safe to say that Camera has borrowed a lot from Instagram, such as instant Facebook posting (naturally), basic cropping and colour filters. Most of these filters are very basic, and don't tend to cross over into Instagram's retro faded-Polaroid cachet.

Where Facebook's new app really shines is in its reviewing capabilities, which is actually very well integrated with Facebook itself. I actually now find this to be preferable to using the formal Facebook app (or mobile web version) to review images posted by myself or contacts.

Simple tabs flip between 'Me' and 'Friends', users then scroll vertically through albums, and then horizontally within the albums themselves - it makes for a very quick and efficient browsing platform, and reminds me of Flipbook's UI.

Normal Facebook posts and the other detritus are excluded, making for a nice visual experience - likes, comment numbers and tags are translucently overlaid in the corners of the images. Tagging is done simply by tapping the image, while comments exist in a text box below the image.

Basically, you don't need to open new windows, or leave the app to fiddle with your images (although that’s an option), which is a breath of fresh air for Facebook's normally torturous mobile interfaces.

But why has Facebook decided to compete with itself in this space?

Google learned the hard way with its attempts years ago to run YouTube alongside Google Video after its purchase. Google Video was eventually folded into YouTube, and mostly disbanded. It exists now as little more than a YouTube shell.

HP has also demonstrated how buying companies can go wrong - if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Run it separately and collect the profits - let the founders run it as they have been. Although in the case of Instagram, the business case is a bit more iffy and looks worryingly like a 'dot-com' purchase.

To be fair to Facebook, it has had its Camera app in development for a long time - long before any Instagram purchase - Zuckerberg has admitted as much.

I suspect the demographics between Camera and Instagram are different enough for them both to survive comfortably for the time being. As mentioned earlier, Facebook has been careful not to steal Instagram's most visible appeal - its scratchy, retro Polaroid look that hipster kids love: essentially a false sense of individuality and creativity.

Allan Swann is the deputy editor of Computer Business Review