Snapchat Was Just Forced to Copycat Instagram

A story of impulse, habit, and the battle for your camera.

Instagram is putting the heat on Snapchat. And I love it.

I quit Snapchat stories a few months back. I was tired of all the sleazy featured stories that were always plastered all over that page, so I decided to jump ship and try Instagram stories instead. I, like many, had rolled my eyes when Instagram first copied Snapchat like this, but I was surprised to find that Instagram’s story tools have gotten good. Really good. Instagram has better captioning tools. They’re more flexible, more interesting, and allow for more creativity. They’re fun!

But more importantly, Instagram stories are better because you can post pictures or videos from your phone’s camera roll. This allows for even more creativity. I can post time-lapses or photos that I’ve edited in other apps. The stories I see from my church and local businesses are amazing. These people are putting a lot of time into creating incredible, professional looking stories.

Why doesn’t this happen on Snapchat? The answer is found in this app update that popped up in my feed about two weeks ago:

Snapchat used to have this weird white box around any post that you didn’t take directly with Snapchat’s camera. It was awkward. The idea was to force people to use the Snapchat camera.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When something cool happens in front of you, what do you do? More than likely, you pull out your phone. Then what? Do you launch the stock camera app, Snapchat, Instagram, or something else? I think many, many, people would answer that they open Snapchat.

Snapchat wants to be your camera app. They want everything you capture on your phone to go through Snapchat first. And they want you to share every moment – as long as you captured it in their app.

I’m sure Instagram wants this too – but they’ve decided to take a different approach. Instagram has decided to let you post whatever you want to your story, whenever you want. Instagram is aiming for quality over quantity. Maximum engagement looks like this: Take lots of pictures, caption them quickly, and post them to your story. Curation is different: Take lots of pictures (using your full-quality stock camera app), and then post the best on your story.

There is no way I’m going to document my entire life using both Snapchat and Instagram. That’s why this battle is important. And Snapchat was just forced to give up some ground. Instagram copied Snapchat, that much is for sure. But I honestly think Instagram is doing the majority of the innovating in this space now. I guess copycatting can go both ways.

My Tech Changes in 2015

If I’m being honest, 2015 was a really good year.  Graduating high school is always a plus, and I’m loving college.  2015 was also a good year in the technology department for me.  Looking back, there’s been a lot of changes to the devices and apps that I use on a daily basis.  Here are the biggest three.

First up, I finally got an iPhone!  I’ve had an iPod Touch since 7th grade, but I didn’t get an iPhone until just last January.  My iPhone is the device I use most often, for the most things, and it’s absolutely an integral part of my life (maybe a little too integral, if I’m still being honest).  It’s so nice to not have to carry around two devices anymore (a dumb phone and an iPod), and obviously it’s also nice to have a data plan.  Getting an iPhone was definitely the biggest tech event of the year for me, and I’m still loving it.

Next up was photos.  iCloud Photo Library launched way back in October 2014, but, to me at least, it wasn’t useful until Photos for Mac happened last April.  iCloud Photo Library is really great; it’s so nice to just have the Photos app sync on all my devices, instead of having a Photos app full of photos from that device and another app full of Dropbox photos.  Not only that, but Photos for Mac has great support for facial detection, geotagging, and smart albums, so all in all it’s just a great way to organize all my photos.  Thanks to Apple upping their iCloud pricing tiers, I’m still only paying 99¢/month, and I now get 50 gb.  Totally worth it.

Finally, Apple Music launched last June!  I discovered Spotify in December 2014, and I used it religiously for the first half of 2015.  However, when Apple Music came out, I just had to try it.  After the three month free trial, my family decided to keep paying for it.  We ended up on Apple Music mostly because the family plan is actually usable (unlike Spotify’s), but in generally I’m happy with Apple Music.  Since honesty is, apparently, a theme in this post, Apple Music still has a long way to go to be as good as Spotify.  Frankly, Apple Music is still pretty buggy.  However, there are things about Apple Music that are better than Spotify will ever be, like built in Siri support.  Being able to use Siri to control music in the car is definitely my favorite feature of Apple Music.  And as far as the bugs go, I have confidence that Apple will continue to fix those too.  I’ll be patient.

So that’s my 2015 technology year in review.  As I said, it’s been a good year.  What’s your year been like?  Get any cool new gadgets?  Find that perfect cloud service that you’d always hoped existed?  Let me know what kinds of tech you love in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter @NickFoster56.  Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas!  ••

Photos Saga Part 2: Photos for Mac

In my post last week, I talked about how I moved all my photos over from Dropbox to iCloud Photo Library.  What got me started on that topic, however, was the new Photos for Mac app.  As I said last week, Photos for Mac had been announced at WWDC last summer, but didn’t actually come out until just a few weeks ago.  After talking about iCloud Photo Library last week, I’m finally ready to talk about Photos for Mac.  There are some problems with the app, which will hopefully be fixed in future updates (is is, after all, version 1.0).  On the whole, though, it works really well, and I’m excited about it.

Open up Photos for Mac and the first tab you see at the top is the Photos tab.  If you’ve used photos on an iOS 7 device, this view will look very familiar.  All photos are shown, in reverse chronological order, divided into “moments” just like on iOS.  Also like iOS (that phrase is the key to this post), this is meant to be the main screen in photos, and it basically does what it promises.  No complaints here.

I’m going to skip next to the third tab at the top, Albums.  Albums is a much more complicated view, but I like the way it works.  At the top of the screen are several auto-generated albums.  This includes “All Photos” (similar to moments but not divided up by time), as well as “Panoramas,” “Videos,” “Slow-mo,” and so on.  This is a nice way to group photos of a particular kind.  Beneath these are the user-created albums.  These include regular albums and smart albums.  Regular albums are just what you’d expect, a collection of photos that you’ve put together.  These albums sync to all your devices over iCloud.  Smart albums automatically include all photos that fit a set of criteria, say, “Date is 4/29/15” and “Camera Model is iPhone 5s.”  Smart albums are great for organizing lots of photos; for example, I have a screenshots album that includes all files with “.png” in the name.  What’s frustrating, though, is that smart albums don’t sync over iCloud, so you can’t view them on iOS.  (Oddly enough, you actually can see them in a browser on iCloud.com.  What the heck?)

Another section of the Albums screen is Faces.  This allows you to tag the faces in your pictures, Facebook style.  To start, click on one of the detected faces at the bottom, and then type in a name.  Photos then shows you a group of pictures and asks you to confirm which ones are of the same person.  As you go, Photos also automatically adds faces that it’s (apparently) more sure about.  This is a cool way to organize photos, but, like smart albums, you won’t be able to view them on your iOS devices.  Another organization feature that has issues is geotagging.  Photos for Mac will let you see photo geotags, but you can’t add them manually.  This seems ridiculous, why should I have to use another app to do that?  The other thing that’s annoying is there’s no master photo map to see geotags; the only way (that I know of) to see a map is to go a photo’s moment and click the location there.  This then pulls up a map of the location.  You can zoom out in moments to see “collections” or “years” and then view a map of that group (which is much larger), but this still seems odd.  I feel like there should be a “Map” option from the albums screen.

Now I can finally get to the second tab at the top of Photos: Sharing.  iCloud Photo Sharing has been around for a few years now, and from what I can tell, it hasn’t been updated in a few either.  iCloud Photo Sharing has obviously been designed for a pre-iCloud Photo Library world.  Here’s how it works: when you share photos, they begin uploading into a shared album.  They stay there forever, and they don’t count against your iCloud storage.  Basically, they operate entirely separately from your iCloud Photo Library!  This really needs to be updated.  After going on that backpacking trip a few weeks ago, I wanted to share some photos.  However, even though they had already uploaded to my iCloud Photo Library, I had to wait for them to reupload to iCloud Photo Sharing!  This is ridiculous.  If I want to share files that are already in Dropbox, the process of creating a link is instantaneous.  Apple really needs to work on reconciling iCloud Photo Library and Photo Sharing to work better together.

The final tab of Photos for Mac is Projects, which allows you to create and order prints, photo books, cards, and other items, Shutterfly-style.  This is a neat feature, but I don’t see myself using it much.

The last thing I want to talk about is Windows support.  There is no Photos app for Windows, so you can only see your photos in a native app on iOS and OS X.  You can, however, view your photos in a browser on Windows by going to iCloud.com.  This works well enough, but it’s a little slow.  Also, you can’t view shared albums on Windows at all.  This is odd; it seems like allowing iCloud Photo Sharing on Windows would actually drive customers to the Mac.

I think that about wraps it up.  Photos for Mac is miles ahead of what I had before, and so far I’m super happy with it.  I hope that Apple will continue to improve both the app and iCloud Photo Library as time goes on.  Apple seems to be serious about wanting to be the home for your photos, and if they keep it up, I think they just might succeed.  ••

Photos Saga Part 1: iCloud Photo Library

The wait is over – Photos for Mac is here!  Ever since I found out at WWDC last summer that there would be a new Photos app for the Mac, I couldn’t wait for it.  I don’t have iPhoto, and I was trying (and failing) to find a reason to pay $15 for it (I didn’t get it free with my Mac because I bought the Mac used), so the idea of a free app got me excited.  I was also excited about the fact that Apple was going to pre-install it on every Mac with the OS X Yosemite update.  This put Photos for the Mac on a level plane with Photos for iOS, which made so much sense.  Unfortunately, we learned at WWDC that Photos for Mac wasn’t going to come until “early 2015.”  So basically, I’ve been waiting almost a year for this.

Photos for Mac is actually just a part of a bunch of new features centered around photos from Apple this past year.  It started with iCloud Photo Library, which launched in beta last fall with iOS 8.  I tried iCloud Photo Library briefly at the time, but it was a little buggy (it was a beta, after all), and it seemed kind of useless without a Mac app.  So I decided to wait, keeping my photos in Dropbox for the time being (see my posts on Carousel and Dropbox vs. Microsoft OneDrive).  Carousel is pretty good, but I hated having discrepancies between my main Carousel photo library and the photo library in the Photos app on iOS.  What I really wanted was photo cloud storage that tied into an official Apple Photos app, both on the Mac and iOS.

So when Photos launched earlier this month and iCloud Photo Library came out of beta, I was super excited.  I immediately got ready to move my photos to iCloud.  I have just under 8gb of space in Dropbox that I’ve earned over time.  I was using about 5.5gb for about 15 months’ worth of photos (I don’t keep the videos in Dropbox – since they’re all 1080p there just isn’t room, and I care more about the photos anyway).  In iCloud, you start with 5gb of storage, but I was already using about 2gb for device backups.  Fortunately, you can upgrade to 20gb of iCloud space for only $0.99/month.  The larger iCloud storage plans are priced way higher than Dropbox, but I really like this super-entry level tier.  It should give me plenty of space for a few years to come.

Having upgraded my plan, I went ahead and imported all my photos into the Photos app on the Mac.  As I said, I’d been curating my photos library in Dropbox, making sure everything was there, and not worrying as much about the photos stored locally on my iOS devices.  So basically, what I wanted to do was just import my single Camera Uploads folder in the Photos app.  To avoid duplicates, I first deleted all the photos off of my iPhone and iPad.  Then I copied my Camera Uploads folder (leaving the original intact for safekeeping) and imported it into the Photos app on my Mac.  I had just under 3000 photos in Dropbox, so it took a few minutes, but pretty soon everything had imported and I was ready to go.  Success!

After that, I had to let the photos upload to iCloud.  I left my computer on when I went to church that night (it was a Wednesday), and by the time I got home it was finished, so it took around 2-6 hours.  This brings me to an interesting point about iCloud storage.  On each device that’s signed into your iCloud Photo Library, you have two options.  One is “Download originals to this device,” the other is “Optimize device storage.”  The first option does exactly what it says: it keeps all photos, in full resolution, stored locally in that device’s memory.  The other option is more interesting.  It leaves most of the photos in the cloud, only downloading the recent ones and the ones you look at often.  When you’re scrolling through your library, you won’t notice anything unusual.  However, when you tap on a photo, you’ll see a blurry, low-res shot for a few seconds while the full-resolution one downloads.  This doesn’t take long, and it’s actually pretty seamless.

The point of this is to allow you to keep lots of photos in iCloud, while not eating up your device’s storage.  I really like this feature.  I have my Mac set to download originals (for safekeeping), but I just let my iOS devices pull their photos from the cloud.  So far, it’s been working really well.  There’s just one other implication that comes from this: iCloud Photo Library is all-or-nothing.  You can’t have some photos in your library that are synced to the cloud and some that aren’t; you either use iCloud Photo Library (and pay for however much space you need) or you don’t use it.

I’m going to stop here for this week, since this is already much longer than most of my (already long) posts.  I realize that I haven’t actually talked about the app itself yet, and I apologize, but I felt that this post was necessary first.  The Photos app really is meant to be used with iCloud Photo Library, and I thought that it was interesting enough to merit a whole post.  I’ll be back next week with Part 2 of this post, and I’ll have details on how the Mac app actually works.  Yes, next week should be an app review (though I guess Photos for Mac is technically an app), but I’ll push this month’s (mobile) app review out until the next week.  Stay tuned!  ••

iPhoneography is a Real Thing

Last weekend I went on a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail down here in Georgia.  The weather was perfect, and there wasn’t a lot of fog, so the views were stunning.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my iPhone.  Instead, I had my brother’s old Kodak point and shoot from circa 2008.  It’s a good camera, but for some reason it wasn’t giving me the shots I was looking for on this trip.  It was really disappointing.  I did get some pretty good shots, but the lighting was less than great on some of them.  This got me thinking about the iPhone as a camera – not as a cell phone camera that you use to take awful pictures when you don’t have a good camera, but as a real camera.

Apple claims that people take more pictures every day with the iPhone than they do with any other camera.  They say this is because it “makes it so incredibly easy.”  I couldn’t agree more.  I’m not a photography expert, and I don’t know how to use any advanced photography features, but simple things like photo brightness are so unbelievably straight forward on the iPhone.  To adjust the lighting in a picture, just tap the spot you’d like auto brightness to adjust to.  Still not happy?  Slide your finger up or down a bit to make finer adjustments.  This simplicity is what makes the iPhone such a great camera for normal people like me.  There’s nothing to it – you just tap on what’s important and the phone does the rest.

But what about more professional photographers?  There will always be a place for dedicated cameras, but iOS 8 gave the pros more features as well.  Apple now allows manual control of camera features such as shutter speed and white balance.  These advanced features can’t be used in the stock camera app, but third-party apps like VSCOcam can take full advantage of these manual adjustments.  Again, this doesn’t make the iPhone a professional grade camera, but it does open up a whole new world to amateurs looking to dive a little deeper.

“Now wait a minute,” you might be saying, “doesn’t that Kodak camera also has adjustments like that?”  I’m sure it does.  However, when I’m taking pictures, I’m often looking to get a quick shot and then move on.  I tried mashing a few buttons on the Kodak to bring up some sort of controls, but I got nothing.  This is my point about the iPhone, it’s just so easy.  Now truly anyone can take, if not a fantastic photo, a perfectly good photo, and they can do it with ease. This is not a fact to be taken lightly.

There’s one more thing that’s great about the iPhone’s camera, and that’s the ability to share.  The internet is a fantastic place to share photos, and the easiest way to do this is through our phones (since many photos are already stored on there anyway).  In order to share my backpacking photos, however, I first had to go home and plug the SD card into my laptop.  Then I had to import them and let them sync to iCloud Photo Library (more on that in a future post).  If I had taken these pictures on my iPhone, they would have begun uploading the moment I got back on WiFi.  Sure, they still would have taken a while to load into cloud storage, but at least I could have sent a few pictures to people over iMessage while I was waiting to share the entire album.

These are some of the many reasons why the iPhone is a great camera.  But there’s one more big one: we always have our phones with us.  I am a person who believes that more photos is a good thing.  Sure, sometimes the good photos get buried in all the junk, but I know that I have often gotten great memories from a shot I took on a whim.  Plus, it’s quicker to pull a phone out of a pocket than to retrieve a point and shoot from a backpack.  This means that I can get shots that I otherwise would have missed completely.  The iPhone is definitely a revolutionary camera.  I for one hope it continues to be.  ••

Ok, so I got some good photos on this trip

OK, so I got some good photos on this trip

Dropbox vs. Microsoft OneDrive

I’ve been a Dropbox user for 3 years now.  I think most people have heard of Dropbox; it’s the most well known cloud storage service available.  Up until a couple of months ago, Dropbox was the only cloud storage I used.  In July, however, I got a Microsoft Office365 subscription (I got a really good deal as a college student), and as part of that I get 1tb (not a typo) of space in Microsoft OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive).  At the time, I mostly used Dropbox for photos and documents, and I had worked my way up to almost 6gb of space.  Upon getting 1tb, my first thought was “I’ll never have to clear out my cloud storage ever again!”  Six weeks later, however, I’ve moved my photos back to Dropbox, leaving the documents in OneDrive.  As I found out, each service has its pros and cons.

Desktop Client
As the leader of the cloud storage industry, Dropbox really knows its stuff.  It has a certain “it just works” feel to it; a polish that’s come simply from being around for so long.  I used to think that this was a given, but after using the (slightly less polished) OneDrive, I’ve really come to appreciate it.  For instance, there are times when I need to get a file from my iPad to my computer.  Sitting in front of both devices, I watch the iPad until it says the upload is complete, then I look up at the computer, and the Dropbox client is already downloading the file.  I took speed like this for granted.  However, when doing the same thing using OneDrive, I look up from my iPad and… OneDrive isn’t doing anything.  I click the little icon, and OneDrive proudly tells me that it “Last updated 8 minutes ago.”  What has it been doing for the last 8 minutes?  OneDrive just sits there, waiting patiently for what is apparently a timed update cycle.  There’s no manual refresh button; the only thing you can do is reboot the client.  This is really frustrating.  The OneDrive client seems slower and less efficient in general, too.  Other than that, though, it is a serviceable client, and it works well enough.

iOS Apps
I can’t speak to Android apps here, but I did use both Dropbox and OneDrive on my iPad and iPod Touch.  Both apps have features to automatically upload photos, and the OneDrive app seems better at keeping up with this in the background.  However, the Dropbox upload algorithm has one or two clever touches.  For example, the most recent photos upload first.  This way, if you take a photo and want to share it via Dropbox, then find there’s 30 photos that didn’t upload yesterday, you don’t have to wait.  Videos upload last for the same reason.  The OneDrive app is also missing a way to save files for offline use (as someone who doesn’t have an iPhone, this is a feature I missed).  Again, though, both apps work well.  One other important point is that Office Mobile apps can connect directly to OneDrive.  Sure, there are plenty of productivity apps that link with Dropbox, but when you use a third-party productivity app alongside Word you usually get little formatting bugs in your document (not that I care too much about these, but if you’re doing something important for work or school, they’re not good).

Browser Client
I actually think I’m going to give this category to OneDrive.  The interfaces are very similar, but I like OneDrive’s better, especially for photos.  Also, OneDrive has Office Online integration, so clicking a Word document opens it up right there in a new tab for editing.  The one leg up Dropbox has is that newly uploaded files automatically appear, without you having to refresh the page.  On OneDrive, you’re going to have to reach for your browser’s refresh button.

Storage Space
Dropbox starts you off with 2gb of storage space.  This might have been a lot five or six years ago, but these days, it’s pretty small.  OneDrive starts with 15gb, so does Google Drive, and Box gives you 10gb.  As you can see, 2gb is really small.  Granted, there’s lot of things you can do to earn more space (use their photo uploader, refer friends, connect with Twitter and Facebook, etc.), but OneDrive offers many of these bonuses as well.  I’m really hoping that, sometime soon, Dropbox will increase their starting space to something more competitive.  Hopefully, this will also apply retroactively to old accounts.  I know that sounds unlikely, but when Dropbox upped their referral bonus from 250mb to 500mb, they applied the extra space to retroactive referrals as well.

Sharing
Both services allow you to send file links to other people (even if they don’t use the service), as well as created shared folders (with those who do use the service) for collaboration.  When you get a shared link from either service, you have an option to download the files as a .zip.  However, when you get a Dropbox link, you also have the option to “Add to My Dropbox.”  This is easy and quick, and can also be done from a smartphone.  Even if OneDrive were to add this feature, it would be less useful, because less people use OneDrive.

So what is each service good for?  Well, as I said, I decided to move my photos back to Dropbox, because it just works better (even though I wish I had more space).  I did decide to keep my documents in OneDrive though, mostly because of the aforementioned Office Mobile integration.  Finally, I’m going to continue to use Dropbox to share files.

So that’s my future plan, but what are your thoughts? How (and why) do you use different services? Feel free to leave a comment about your preferences. Thanks for reading!  ••

Update 11/6/14: Microsoft Word for iOS now has native Dropbox support!  This is fantastic, and it works really well.  Dropbox also announced that they will continue to work with Microsoft to incorporate Office Online into Dropbox.com.  That being said, I have now moved my documents back to Dropbox, and plan to keep them there.

August App Review: Aviary

♦ This post is one of the Best of 2014


App: Aviary Photo Editor
Developer: Aviary Inc.
Price: Free
Platform: iOS, Android

Photos are becoming a larger and larger part of the web.  Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – we love to take and share photos.  Photo editing used to just be for photographers, but with the rise of services like Instagram (famous for its filters), people have discovered how much fun it is to be creative with their photos.  Aviary delivers traditional editing tools (brightness, contrast, and so on) as well as some fun new ones (yes, including filters).

Open the Aviary app and you’re greeted with a grid of all the photos on your device.  Tap a photo and you’re taken immediately to the editor, where you’ll see the photo front and center, with all the tools at the bottom.  The Adjust tool give you the “traditional” tools I mentioned earlier, and the Effects tool gives you filters.  But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  There are tools for rotating and cropping the photo, as well as a blur tool.  There’s also a draw tool and a text tool for making annotations and captions, and there’s tools for fixing red eye and for whitening areas of the photo.  There are several other tools as well (see images 1 and 2).

The one tool I really want to talk about is the Splash tool (see image 5).  This tool is a ton of fun.  Basically, it makes the photo black and white, then allows you to “draw” the color back in to certain parts of the photo.  There’s even a “Smart Color” tool that gives you the accuracy you lose from a touch screen.  For example, if there’s a blue object next to a red object, the Smart Color tool lets you color the edge of the blue object without coloring the red object.  This tool is really enjoyable to play around with, and you can get some stunning results from it.

When you’re done making edits, you can save the photo to your device, and share the photo on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more.  There’s even a button to order prints of the photo at Walgreens.

There’s one more feature about Aviary that I want to talk about, and that is their API (Application Programming Interface).  Basically, Aviary has made their entire app available to be embedded into other apps or websites.  For example, when using the PicStich App (a collage making app), you can double tap a photo you’re using and get a full-featured Aviary editor right inside PicStich (see images 8 and 9).  This is really nice that Aviary has allowed other developers to use their software to make apps better.

So get creative!  I’d love to see what kinds of cool photos you guys can make using this app.  Feel free to post a comment with an Instagram or other photo link.  Happy editing!  ••