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Facebook had to buy Instagram: Here’s why and what it means for you

facebook filtersBy now everyone knows Facebook has acquired Instagram for $1 billion cash and stock – which is a lot, to be sure, but it’s money that Facebook can stand to spend; and more importantly that it had to spend. Instagram has risen so high so quickly, and the recent Android launch gave Facebook the green light to buy what has become a serious competitor.

Last summer, reports that Facebook was creating its own photo filter feature began circulating, with nothing to show since, other than a few subtle platform tweaks. Instagram was the means to an end: Facebook needed to introduce some sort of imaging client beyond what it currently offers, and Instagram has catapulted to a threatening status. Its position in the social-mobile arena is where Facebook wants to be. Facebook has said that if it were to start from scratch today, it would create a mobile app, not a Web client. It wants mobile and it wants mobile bad — $1 billion bad.

The Instagram acquisition killed two birds with one stone. Facebook has managed to reassert its photo-sharing dominance, complete with necessary upgrades, while buying out arguably its largest mobile social competitor.

What it means for Instagram

Without a doubt this has implications for Instagram users, although both Facebook and Instagram say that all will remain independent.

“We’re committed to building and growing Instagram independently,” says Mark Zuckerberg. “Millions of people around the world love the Instagram app and the brand associated with it, and our goal is to help spread this app and brand to even more people.”

“It’s important to be clear that Instagram is not going away,” CEO Kevin Systrom said via the app’s blog today. “We’ll be working with Facebook to evolve Instagram and build the network. We’ll continue to add new features to the product and find new ways to create a better mobile photos experience. The Instagram app will still be the same one you know and love. You’ll still have all the same people you follow and that follow you. You’ll still be able to share to other social networks.”

But still, those of us who use the app on its own have reason for concern. Except for a handful of images, all of my Instagram posts stay there and there alone and that’s the way I like – and I’m not the only one. If you’re even the slightest bit concerned about where old photos are going, then it’s time to get your hands on an Instagram export tool. Instaport.Me sends them all wherever you want incredibly easily. It’s still not clear how much and what exactly is going to be sent to Facebook, but if you want to play it safe then this is the smart move. For the record, Facebook says you’ll still be able to keep Instagram posts off the site at your discretion.

There’s going to be resentment though, because Instagram is a clique-ish community and its users are passionate to say the least. While everything might look and function the same, it’s not going to be business as usual. You can expect a huge influx of new users, and a feed that moves much faster. And while Instagram hasn’t had a terrible amount of glitch issues, you can bet that having Facebook’s infrastructure and engineers under the hood will keep things running smoothly (relatively), despite the larger community.

What it (might) mean for Windows Phone

This is more of a bullet point, but worth mentioning.

What the deal could very well mean is that Instagram will speed up its Windows Phone push. Microsoft owns a stake in Facebook, so they might throw some weight around. And Facebook likely wants technology  it owns available to as many mobile users as possible, so keep those fingers crossed Windows Phone users.

What it means for Facebook

Remember that recent report revealing that one of the biggest Facebook irks is the flood of Instagrams hitting the site? Well steel yourself, because the acquisition is hardly going to help matters. In fact, don’t be surprised if soon, most of the images uploaded to the site have a Lo-Fi filter and tilt-blur effect.

It also means that some elements of Instagram will be built into Facebook. “We will try to learn from Instagram’s experience to build similar features into our other products,” Zuckerberg wrote this morning.

Finally, Facebook will have some semblance of an editing feature. Unfortunately, it’s not quite what users have been requested. Simple adjustments, like rotation, crop, red-eye fix, contrast and brightness manipulation, have been what Facebook Photos desperately need. Instagram doesn’t have many of these features, so the acquisition doesn’t necessarily mean that those are on their way. But more options for photos are inevitable.

While your Facebook News Feed will feature more Instagrams and Photos will get a feature upgrade, the biggest implication isn’t terribly user-oriented. The acquisition signals that Facebook will buy when it has to, and it will pony up the big bucks if need be. And in its final pre-IPO days, it’s a strong stand to take.

The deal is also indicative of Facebook’s focus on mobile. Facebook wants to be a mobile first company, but it still isn’t one. Recent reports showed that the site is still mostly accessed on the Web, and that’s because it simply hasn’t refined its tablet and smartphone experience. The company’s S1 filings revealed that mobile is the number one priority, and while Facebook isn’t expected to go buying up each and every competitor in this space, you can bet this is only the beginning of its mobile expansion.