Why is Instagram not a website (yet)?

Rem was wondering about this yesterday in Twitter:

A couple years ago I had to do some analysis of popular apps (basically peeking inside their guts, so to speak). What we found is that Instagram used a lot of native libraries for dealing with video and audio.

Rem suggests that Instagram could be almost 100% a website nowadays, and not the strange hybrid it is. I would love to see that, but the web platform needs a lot more features we don’t have yet, for example:

  • reliably being able to select which camera to use, and also being able to focus
  • encoding into a certain type of video format, in a performant non-draining-your-battery way
  • manipulating videos in real time, sounds included
  • accessing the ‘photoroll’ easily

You can access a camera stream with getUserMedia, but for privacy reasons you cannot see details about the devices so your code cannot know if they’re back or front cameras, and so the UI cannot respond appropriately. When running in phones, which use better camera hardware than webcams, we cannot access the camera settings from JavaScript (we can, with Firefox OS, but the APIs haven’t been standardised as no other vendor was interested in implementing them).

As usual, video is a huge issue in the web. Encoding is complex and expensive in battery terms, but thanks to MediaRecorder it is becoming more accessible. Still the formats MediaRecorder outputs are only viewable in browsers (vp8/webm); if you encode a video using the browser you have to convert it locally to something else like mp4 if you want to upload it to sites like Twitter, and unless you’re a tech-savvy person and have installed VLC or similar you cannot even watch the video you generated in your desktop if using the default video viewers in your system.

Similarly, handling video and audio post processing in real time is possible with WebGL + Web Audio but recording is not supported in anything other than Firefox. Chromieum/Opera won’t give you a stream from canvas or record a stream from a Web Audio context either.

And being able to access the photoroll in mobile or a directory in desktop would require that the APIs for exposing directory listings are available so the app could do things such as building thumbnails of the images, but they aren’t.

It’s not impossible—it’s “just” a matter of implementation and adoption.

If apps such as Instagram were 100% web based, and had a reliable chance of working reasonably well on every device, there would be no distinctions between device operating systems, and we could just focus on the device features (price, camera quality, battery life, storage, design…). This would be huge for the users and quite probably for the app makers which would need only one team to build the app, not one per operating system.

But would it be huge for Google and Apple?

6 Replies to “Why is Instagram not a website (yet)?”

  1. You can “access the photoroll in mobile” via a normal file input, no? On iOS, I can then choose Photo Library and select photos stored on the device.

    1. You “can” access the roll, but you cannot access all the files. You have to select photos. Compare that with having access to the photos, so you can build thumbnails ahead of time.

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