One year in, it’s almost like Facebook never bought Instagram. When will that change?

It was one of the biggest acquisitions of the Web 2.0 internet world, and for a generation of startup founders who grew up in the post-iPhone(s appl) app world, Facebook’s(s fb) purchase of the Instagram for a staggering $1 billion set a new precedent. The acquisition was a landmark for the technology community in terms of the amount of money a company would pay for a simple app, and it also underscored the importance  of photos on social media by setting off a series of “photo wars” and new tensions among the big web companies including Twitter and Facebook.

But for Instagram and its users themselves? Things haven’t actually changed all that much — so far.

Mark Zuckerberg ringing opening bellOne year ago on April 9, 2012, Mark Zuckerberg announced on his Facebook wall (where else?) that the not-yet-public Facebook would acquire Instagram. Founded in 2010 as a pivot from a location-based app called Burbn, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger’s Instagram turned into a scrappy mobile startup that seemed like the antithesis of Facebook’s ubiquitous web platform. It seemed like an odd match, and the even if the sale was a defensive move to keep Instagram out of Twitter’s hands, Zuckerberg explained why the duo still made sense:

“This is an important milestone for Facebook because it’s the first time we’ve ever acquired a product and company with so many users. We don’t plan on doing many more of these, if any at all. But providing the best photo sharing experience is one reason why so many people love Facebook and we knew it would be worth bringing these two companies together.”

The fears that came with the purchase

kevinsystromI wasn’t yet a tech reporter when I heard about the Facebook acquisition, but I remember having an instant sense of fear when I heard the news. Instagram was one of the first apps I eagerly downloaded when I got my first smartphone in August 2011. In the 20 months since then, I’ve shared more than 700 photos on the service, or on average, more than a photo a day. When I heard the news, my immediate worry was that Facebook would kill the app I’d grown to love, a tool that I have used to document my favorite memories over the past year.

And needless to say, I wasn’t alone in this fear. A quick Google search for “Will Facebook ruin Instagram” brings up at least five articles by that title on the first page of results. To say that people were aprehensive is putting it mildly.

What’s stayed the same

But now a year after the deal was announced, the essential core of Instagram — being able to quickly take and share mobile photos that look good, upload instantly, and generate positive social feedback from friends — hasn’t really changed. Sure, there have been signs that Instagram is under new ownership, such as the terms of service debacle in December. But the threats of quitting Instagram seemed overblown, and for now, my feelings about the app I first downloaded remain the same. Instagram still feels like a fast, efficient, and creative world within the app.

Mobilize 2012: Om Malik - Founder and Senior Writer, GigaOM Mike Krieger - Co-Founder, Instagram
Mobilize 2012: Om Malik – Founder and Senior Writer, GigaOM Mike Krieger – Co-Founder, Instagram

Before the Facebook acquisition, Systrom said the company was aiming to hit 100 million users, and the app went ahead and met that benchmark in February of this year. The acquisition didn’t slow user growth, but it didn’t triple the predictions either — presumably once you start reaching large enough numbers, it’s hard to keep growing at earlier paces. But the app continued to do well, likely strongly influenced by the jump to Android just days before the acquisition that turbocharged usage and the increased support from Facebook’s servers to handle increased capacity.

So far, we haven’t seen a designated Instagram tab appear on Facebook profiles. And aside from larger photos on the revamped timeline (for all photos, not just those from Instagram), and integrated likes on photos, there hasn’t been much in the way of preferential treatment for the photo app, as Zuckerberg noted in March. Of course this could, and probably will, change over time. But for now, we haven’t seen anything too radical.

What’s changed

However, we have seen some changes to the platform over the past year. They might not be ones that casual users would notice, or changes that alter the core experience of Instagram. But they do hint where the company could be headed, and how the two companies are interacting so far:

  1. It set off the battles among the web giants. Over the past year we’ve seen the launch of apps and products like Twitter’s photo filters, Twitter’s video service Vine, Flickr’s re-launched mobile app, and the rise of Snapchat. The Instagram acquisition came as Facebook realized it didn’t have a lock on how people shared photos, or as Om wrote, “Facebook was scared shitless and knew that for first time in its life it arguably had a competitor that could not only eat its lunch, but also destroy its future prospects.” But the acquisition didn’t slow down Facebook’s competitors, and suddenly Instagram was pulled into the ongoing struggles between Twitter and Tumblr and Apple and Facebook. Instagram had previously been friendly in allowing users to cross-post content to a variety of sites like Tumblr and Twitter, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey was an early investor in Instagram. But with reports that Twitter failed at acquiring Instagram just before Zuckerberg succeeded, relations between the companies deteriorated later in the year.
  2. Instagram has to play by Facebook’s rules now. Until December, we hadn’t seen many consequences from Instagram’s new owners, but when Instagram updated its terms of service and people thought their Instagram photos of their kids could end up on billboards, they freaked out. Intentionally or not, Instagram had gone down Facebook’s “do it now, ask permission later” path, and as it has with Facebook, it got Instagram in trouble. While it seems people’s proclamations of swearing off Instagram didn’t really last, it served to remind causal users of the app that the acquisition had really taken place.
  3. Instagram desktop feed mobileSay hello to the web. Prior to the deal, Instagram’s founders had said repeatedly that they had no interest in moving Instagram to the desktop, but the company did launch desktop profiles in November and photo-viewing and feeds in February. It’s hard to tell if those additions have changed the service much, but as we wrote before it’s the ability to upload photos via desktop that would change the alter the experience more dramatically — that so far, the founders have said they’re not interested in adding.

Looking forward to the next year of Facebook + Instagram

So what will happen to Instagram over the upcoming year? Facebook has been through some serious changes since the acquisition — there was the botched IPO, the dramatic improvement of the speed and user experience on mobile, the launch of e-commerce products with the Karma acquisition and Gifts, the launch of Graph Search, the revamp of Newsfeed and tweaks to Timeline, and a new Home on Android.

Post-IPO, the company is building up its service as an advertising network, and doubling down on ways to make money. It seems like Instagram could be the next target for that. Emily White, Sheryl Sandberg’s protege at both Google(s goog) and then Facebook where she worked on AdWords and then Facebook’s mobile partnerships, just announced last week that she’s joining Instagram’s team to be director of operations for the group. White’s joining Instagram could do for the group what Sandberg’s arrival did for Facebook: hello, monetization and advertising. We’ve already seen celebrities using their large followings on Instagram for brand endorsements.

But if users flipped out over terms of service (that a lot of people don’t even read anyway), it’s easy to imagine the outrage that would come if and when mobile ads started appearing in the Instagram feed. That could be the tipping point for many users who haven’t seen big changes over the past year. But it also could be the way for Facebook to start making up the billion dollars it spent on those photos of yours.