Instagram’s Boomerang takes on Vine & Apple’s Live Photos with 1-second videos

Instagram has released a new standalone application called Boomerang. It allows users to share 1-second video clips with their friends, effectively taking the “don’t-call-them-GIFs” animations from Vine and chopping them into sixths.
Boomerang “takes a burst of photos and stitches them together into a high-quality mini video that plays forward and backward,” according to the blog post announcing the app, automatically saving the result to a user’s camera roll. The brief animations can also (of course) be shared to Instagram’s main app.
Boomerang users won’t have to sign in to Instagram to use the app, according a TechCrunch report. It’s supposed to be a lightweight tool that does one thing — capture a short video — and one thing only. Instagram users who see a video made with Boomerang in their feeds, however, will be shown a link to download the app.
This is the third standalone application Instagram has introduced since it was acquired by Facebook. The first was Hyperlapse, a video recording app that makes it easy to shoot time lapses and other edited videos; the second was Layout, which allows people to share photo collages to Instagram proper.
All of these apps could have been included as features in Instagram’s primary app. But, as I explained when Layout was announced, breaking them into pieces makes it easier for Facebook to lay claim to more of a person’s home screen:

Facebook knows that a smartphone home screen has limited space, and if it manages to make at least some of [its copycat services like Slingshot or Rooms] stick, it can take control of mobile devices without having to make its own platform. Until then, all it has to do is rip various aspects of its service out from its ‘big blue app.’
That’s where Instagram comes in. The service was so simple when it was acquired that many additional features can be introduced as standalone apps and explained away by claiming it doesn’t want to make things complicated. It gets to take over people’s smartphones, those people get access to new apps, and Facebook gets to control even more of the home screen. Everyone wins.

Sure, Boomerang mimics something the new iPhones can already do with Apple’s Live Photos. (That might be part of Boomerang’s appeal, actually; no need to buy a new phone just to make fancier animated GIFs.) Sure, the videos are shorter than Vine’s and make it seem a bit like Instagram’s playing catch-up.
But that won’t matter if people have fun with Boomerang. Instagram has enough users who want to find new ways to express themselves that it can probably get thousands of Boomerang downloads in just a few short hours. Then Instagram is happy, Facebook is happy, and consumers are happy. That’s how companies take over a home screen — one quirky little app at a time.

GIF all the things: Imgur unveils video-to-GIF converter

Imgur just gave itself an early birthday present: One week before the popular image hosting service celebrates its sixth anniversary, it unveiled a web-based video to GIF conversion tool Thursday. The new tool makes it easy to create GIFs from any video clip hosted at YouTube or more than 500 other video sites. Imgur bills the converter as the next step to help its users tell stories — but it’s also a bit of a Trojan horse to give Imgur a bigger foothold in mobile.

Imgur's new video to Gif converter.

Imgur’s new video to Gif converter.

The new conversion tool is a remarkably simple way to run videos into GIFs: Users just have to paste a video’s URL into a form field, select a segment of up to 15 seconds, add an optional caption and then let the Imgur servers do their work. As always with Imgur, users don’t have to register, and the result can be freely shared across the web and social networks.

That no-frills approach has helped to turn Imgur into one of the most popular image-hosting destinations on the web. Product and growth director Sam Gerstenzang told me that the site now generates more than 5 billion page views from over 150 million unique users a month. Initially, most of that activity came from Reddit, where Imgur quickly became the most popular image-hosting resource after launching six years ago.

Gerstenzang said that over all of those years, Imgur really just built tools that the community has been asking for, the latest being the new video-to-GIF converter. And it’s true: Animated GIFs have been celebrating a huge comeback over the last few years, fueled largely by Tumblr and Reddit. But by giving people a tool to create GIFs more easily, Imgur is also cleverly embracing another online media shift: People are increasingly consuming their news and feeds on mobile devices, on the go — and chances are that they don’t always have their headphones on.

That’s why some publishers and platforms have started to embrace muted videos. Just think of those clips on Facebook that auto-play, muted, or take a look at the content that folks like AJ+ are creating: Short, shareable clips that combine moving images with big, bold text, easily consumable without the need to actually listen. GIFs are really just a natural extension of this phenomenon. At their core, they are videos without sound, easily consumable when waiting in the line at Starbucks or during the morning public transportation commute.

Quizzed about this, Gerstenzang started to smile. “I think it’s huge,” he said about the mobile opportunity for GIFs, adding that Imgur plans to do a lot more in mobile in the future. Imgur currently does have apps for Android and iOS, but they’re really just app versions of its mobile website. Dedicated, more feature-rich apps could be coming soon, but Gerstenzang declined to share any further details.

Imgur has also been preparing for mobile by making GIFs themselves leaner. “The GIF format is sort of old,” said Gerstenzang. The company introduced a new container format called GIFV late last year that essentially replaces the animated image files with looped videos, which are typically just a tenth of the file’s original size.

Gerstenzang told me that Imgur now keeps three copies of each file, be it an animated GIF uploaded by a user or a GIF created by the new converter: A WebM version, which is the company’s preferred video format; an MP4 version for browsers that don’t support WebM; and an optimized GIF for legacy purposes.

Serving up looping videos instead of animated GIFs helps to speed up viewing on mobile devices, prevents browsers from slowing down, and as a nice side effect also saves Imgur a bunch of money. Gerstenzang didn’t want to elaborate on exactly how GIFV has impacted the company’s bandwidth, but said that it has come with huge cost savings for Imgur.