February 7, 2015

Instagram Photo Size Conjecture

In a recent Instagram app update, the blue color of their UI shifted a bit deeper, resembling Facebook Blue a little more.

Facebook has, so far, kept their promise of keeping Instagram at arms length from the rest of the company, and haven’t made any large user facing changes. The app hasn’t stagnated: aside from the continued massive growth which requires mind-numbingly complex back-end changes, they’ve done a good job keeping the UI fresh. They’ve added new filters, greatly improved search and discover, and overhauled notifications. But all of these things are adjustments to the same winning recipe — we haven’t yet seen a change in meals, yet alone an entirely new menu.

As time goes on I wonder about the inevitable first big change they’ll make to the service. My guess is photo size.

The last time Instagram substantially changed their photo size was after the launch of the iPhone 4, the first device with a Retina screen.1 Instagram doubled their image size to fit the new devices screen size. There was no Android version of Instagram at the time, so they had no other sizes to worry about.

Fast forward 4 years, and Instagram now runs on multiple platforms and devices with dozens of different screen sizes. Scaling images was inevitable. But when a 640px image needs to be rendered as wide as 2250px, it’s somewhat of a disappointment, and not easily remedied.

Instagram photos kind of look a little blurry on an iPhone 6, and they definitely looks like shit on a 6 Plus. These being the newest, highest quality phones, users would expect a premium experience, not a degraded one. Certainly Facebook/Instagram realize this and want to fix it, but the question is how.

When Instagram decides to up the resolution again, they have to answer:

I’m sure the talented folks at Instagram have the data and skills to solve the first two questions, and frankly I can’t wait to see what they come up with. Next-gen Progressive-JPEGs? Some other entirely new image format? A solution to HTML5 adaptive images? I don’t know, but I’m sure it will be great.

The last question is easily the most contentious, and not even one that is entirely necessary. But, given how closely related it is to the problem at hand, it’s worth considering. That Facebook allows images of any size format, and that it’s one of the things venerable competitor Flickr does better, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Instagram eventually capitulate on their square-only position. If they do, it will feel much more like Facebook than just the Blue.

  1. They actually changed it again when they went to full-screen width photos, but the jump wasn’t as significant: 612px to 640px.