Since its inception in October 2010, Instagram has shaped its core functions around a streamlined mobile interface. The service didn’t arrive on desktop until November 2012, when Instagram began to let users view photos within a web browser in a stripped-down experience. Since then, new features have trickled into the web app. With the recent addition of direct messaging, it seems the only thing Instagram doesn’t let you do from a desktop is its main feature: Post a photo.
This is especially strange given that you can send a photo uploaded from the desktop through a DM, so all the tools to allow users to post from desktop seem to be in place. Digital Trends reached out to Instagram for clarification on why the company still prefers to reserve core features for mobile, but did not hear back as of press time. Whatever the reasoning, we’d argue that bringing feature parity to desktop would be the right move for the photo-sharing app.
There was a time when Instagram would be forgiven for a barebones desktop experience. In its early days, when only pictures shot with a phone could be shared, restricting the service to mobile made sense. This inspired a new wave of snapshot photography augmented by Instagram’s many film-inspired filters. The selfie took off as an art form, every meal you ate was suddenly worth showcasing, and baristas became artists.
Then, it changed. Today, Instagram is the second most downloaded app in the world, reaching more than 1 billion users. It’s grown far beyond lo-fi food photography, counting everyone from professional photographers and artists to brands and political parties among its customers. This demands a better experience across the board, and the mobile app no longer serves everyone in the best way.
For these users, a phone is often an ancillary device. The images that get posted to Instagram usually come from a computer first. In these cases, the mobile app is a middleman, at least for this step of the process.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, was originally developed for the desktop (this was, admittedly, well before the proliferation of smartphones). Likewise, it has several functions that Instagram could incorporate into its own desktop experience.
Bringing messaging to desktop was a good start, and in line with Facebook’s goal of unifying its messaging services which also include Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but for those who use Instagram to manage their businesses, especially photographers, artists, and other small businesses who don’t have dedicated social media teams, being able to respond to customer inquiries from a keyboard is a dream come true.
Given that these users are likely already using other desktop services, from Yelp to Facebook to email, picking up a second device just for Instagram doesn’t make sense.
The ability to upload images to Instagram posts and stories from a desktop would be the next logical step. Business accounts would undoubtedly also love the ability to create and schedule posts in advance, something Instagram has only partially embraced with its drafts feature. For now, brands rely on third-party services to accomplish these tasks.
Facebook also has a much more liberal policy for formatting images, something Instagram would need to copy to become truly desktop-friendly. Instagram limits image resolution to a width of just 1,080 pixels, which works out to just over 1 megapixel in the case of a square photo. It also applies very heavy-handed compression that degrades image quality even further. It can get away with this on mobile because phone screens are relatively small, but the desktop is a different story.
It also puts limits on aspect ratios, although this can be a headache for photographers even on mobile. The default aspect ratio of most interchangeable-lens cameras, for example, is 3:2, which Instagram only supports in horizontal orientation. Try posting a vertical 3:2 image and it will be cropped to a 5:4 ratio, cutting off the top or bottom. This may be to reserve space for interface elements on screen, but it’s a meaningless limitation on desktop.
To be fair, Instagram has come a long way since initially only allowing one aspect ratio (a square), but there’s clearly still room for improvement. Warming up to larger, less-compressed images would help the service shine on desktop and make it more attractive to photographers and artists who use the platform to promote their work.
It might be easy to dismiss these requests as something only a minority of Instagram’s users care about. But those users are growing increasingly important to the platform, not just by creating the content that is consumed, but also by paying for the ads that keep it running.
The argument against higher-resolution images and taller aspect ratios is all about cost. There’s the monetary cost of server space — around 100 million photos are shared to Instagram every day — but there is also the performance cost.
As a mobile-first service, Instagram needs to be effortless, and that means images must load as quickly as possible, including on cellular networks and in remote areas of the world where bandwidth is limited. Any perceptible increase in load time will hamper the user experience. Desktop-first applications, on the other hand, have the luxury of being designed for faster home or office broadband.
Still, even without being receptive to larger file sizes, simply allowing people to post from a desktop does not seem like it would have any impact on the mobile experience, while it would remove a pain point for many users and simplify a process that currently requires a hack or third-party software.
From its original goal of cultivating an in-the-moment photo-sharing community, to the current desire to maintain a responsive experience for over a billion monthly users, perhaps it’s not surprising that Instagram has shunned the desktop. But the real reason may be even simpler. When asked why it hasn’t developed an iPad app, Instagram said it just doesn’t have enough people to manage the additional workload. The desktop may be in the same position.
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