The tiny Instagram app grew to a gigantic 27 million users during its first year in the App Store. It has inspired real-life Instameet-ups, Instagram art shows and a community based on love for the image, where users can post and receive feedback from other visual thinkers. Instagrams are not only the new Polaroids when it comes to party pics, they've become a way for users to communicate visually, sharing inspiration and ideas (well, iPhone users anyway - the Android app is due out soon).

But Instagram isn't the only app capturing smartphone users' visual imaginations. Photo-sharing apps such as EyeEm, Piictu and Cinemagr.am each offer users opportunities to connect and organize visually and categorically in non-Instagram ways. The Web-based photo social network pasts of Flickr, PhotoBucket, Picasa, Shutterfly and Kodak Slideshare are over. Digital cameras are yesterday; smartphone cameras are today, and the mobile photo app is now. So what's next for the photo-sharing app?

Instagram owns the mobile photo-sharing space, so why compete with it? As the adage goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

"A lot of our thinking starts off with the assumption that we as a platform assume that Instagram is the camera," Piictu CEO Jon Slimak tells ReadWriteWeb. "We call this photo interaction. It's the idea that the photograph is changing through applications like Instagram, through iPhones having cameras. Photos are moving from objects of memory to objects of interaction."

With that in mind, photo apps outside of or using the existing Instagram platform aim to do one of a few things: Help you communicate visually, organize the images from your social networks, or bring some extra value out of those pre-existing images.

Piictu: Visual Communication, No Filters Allowed

Piictu does not offer the filters of Instagram, which can easily be used to one-up other users' hipness factor. Instead, Piictu is just about talking with pictures, plain and simple. Dubbed "Twitter for pictures," Piictu challenges users to communicate only through images, making the image seem less showy and more clear cut. In that way, it's not an Instagram-like photo sharing app at all. Like Twitter, Piictu organizes images around topics that are trending on the network; today 89 piics were posted under "Why i hate mondays :P), which is hilariously countered by the 56 piic collection titled "Pics @ work."


EyeEm: Organize by Content


Berlin-based startup EyeEm is quite literally thinking outside the square box. Shoot a photo using the EyeEm app, and then choose which category you'd like to place the photo in. This makes the organization on the app more topic-focused, and less about the individual's social media status or fame. It does, however, give users the opportunity to add an Instagram-like filter. Categories today include blackandwhite, Breakfast, self portrait and Friends. With each category, the user also is able to see how many people have uploaded photos to this category, and how many photos live in this category. If you turn on the location function, EyeEm also shows you photos around you, much like the Twitter location function.


GIF-ify an Image with Cinemagr.am

Cinemagr.am is slightly more than a hat trick. It's less of a commitment than making a short silent film using your smartphone, yet it asks you to think about animation. The marvelous thing about this app is that you can shoot a few seconds of video using your phone, cut that down to a few images, and then turn it into a two or three-second animated GIF. What was once a boring cup of coffee becomes an endless loop of steam evaporating into the air.

Like most cinephiles IRL, Cinemagr.am isn't exactly social. The app offers streams of popular and latest GIFs, so that you can get a better idea of the GIF. If you find an image you like, either give it a thumbs up, comment or email it to someone. The GIF works best on the Web, however, so if you decide to make one don't expect it to end up in your family photo album.

Pixable: The Photo Inbox Future & Social Networks

Photo inbox apps such as Pixable do the job of filtering in images from your existing social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Lomography and Instagram. Pixable organizes images by trending popular and recent hashtags, and it allows you to follow your visually oriented Facebook friends. It also organizes images in categories such as "best of" and feeds like "most recent photos" and "top of the week." Pixable does all the sorting and organizing for you. The inbox aggregates all of your photos, making it less social and more customized for an individual, visually stimulating experience.

Pictarine: Your Photo Album Home on the Web

Facebook, Path, Pinterest and Tumblr all have a strong visual component, but to bring them together into one space makes for easier viewing. Services such as Pictarine make that possible. The free Web app operates similarly to Pixable, but remains on the Web only. Sign up for Pictarine and you can easily bring in images from Facebook, Picasa, Flickr, PhotoBucket, Instagram, Dropbox, Shutterfly, MobyPicture and a few others. Pictarine wants to act like your Web-based photo album. Pictarine also lets users create slideshows or playlists, which replace the now old-school iPhoto slideshow days of yore.

The Facebook-Only Category: ShoeBox and PhotoBox

Not everyone is jumping to download a new mobile photo app for their smartphone. Some users would prefer a mobile photo app that only deals with Facebook images, where many not-as-socially network-crazy individuals would prefer to stay. The Facebook Shoebox app from 1,000memories plays on the metaphor of an old shoebox, helping users fill out their own "Facebook past" on Timeline. Such an app might inspire "rosy retrospection," which Dr. Ashwini Nadkarni refers to as "remembering the past as having been better than it really was," but hey, what's the point in remembering the bad times anyway?

The PhotoBox app focuses less on your Facebook photos and more on the photos of your Facebook friends and fan pages. Click on a friend's profile, and PhotoBox sends you straight to their photo albums, bypassing all text and messages. Similarly with My Likes, PhotoBox sends you to images from fan pages that you've liked, pulling up the images that represent that page. It also brings in a collaborative creativity option: Grab a photo from your recent feed, click on it, add a new filter, like it or comment on it, and then share it back to your Facebook page. Just don't forget to tag your friends. It's like one-upping an already awesome photo, and then approving it with a high-five by posting it directly to your Facebook Wall. Unfortunately, the application doesn't retag the person whose photo you ostensibly just stole, so you have to go into Facebook and manually tell them that you just shared it.

The Future of Photo Sharing Apps

It's clear that mobile photo-sharing apps are happening now. But what will the future hold? More GIFs? Less vintage-y tinted Instagram filters? More integration into existing social networks? As social networks evolve to easier, faster interaction with less of an "expense," as Slimak says, users can expect the same of photo-sharing apps.

"We're interested in the expense of a share, which is tied to the idea that users gravitate to a less expensive share," Slimak says. "First a reblog or a retweet was a very inexpensive share. Pinterest is the biggest evidence of this - you can repin something without having to commit a lot of your personality to it."

Image via Shutterstock.