Yesterday, photo-sharing app Cluster announced it had scored US$1.6 million in seed funding from a variety of parties, including Instagram investor Steve Anderson. Cluster v1.0 also hit the App Store yesterday, and as it swims in a sea of "me too" photography apps, you have to ask yourself: What's the point?
Cluster claims to specialize in one very specific area: Helping people collect photos from events they may or may not have attended. The app's website presents scenarios like "Brenden, Rizwan, & Taylor collected 1,500 photos from their trip to Europe," and "7 friends created an album from their 250 music festival photos," suggesting that Cluster is the easiest way to collect the visual evidence of each event.
You upload photos to a "cluster," invite friends either via email, Facebook or by handing out a special invitation code, and let the rest of the group populate the cluster with their own snapshots. You can comment on photos, tag favorites and share your favorites with Twitter, etc. In short, it's the photo section of your Facebook account, with fewer features.
Let me say, for the record, that Cluster is a beautifully designed app and nails the aesthetics of what a semi-social photo app should be. That said, there's virtually no reason why this app should even exist. It's a classic case of a product in search of a problem to solve, and launching exclusively on the iPhone (web and Android versions are on the way) makes its existence even more puzzling.
First, let's tackle the Facebook argument. Facebook is already the most widely used way to share photos with friends, and it's still the easiest. You can share photos in a very basic fashion or organize them into albums and then tag the individuals that the pictures will interest.
So, say you take a hike with a pair of friends and want to share the photos. Would it be easier to grab each of those friends in the Cluster app, create a cluster, force everyone to download the images separately and then re-share them with the social circle of your choosing, or upload the photos to Facebook, tag your friends in the album and -- oh, wait, that's it. Go make yourself a drink.
But maybe you don't want to share the photos on Facebook. Maybe you just want to have the photos yourself. You want to collect all of them to hold close to your heart forever. Fair enough. You know what's great for that? Almost every other photo-sharing app that has ever been released. But even if the iPhone didn't already have Bump, Shutterfly, Path, Flickr and a litany of other photo-sharing options available, there's Photo Stream.
This is where the whole iPhone-exclusive launch part makes me scratch my head. Using Photo Stream -- which is built into both iOS 6 and Mountain Lion -- you can set up a cloud-based album where you can upload photos, invite others to view them and notify them when photos have been added to the stream. You can favorite, comment and share photos there as well. Sound familiar? It should, because it's exactly what Cluster does, only it's already been included in Apple's mobile and desktop operating systems. Oh, and if you happen to have already filled up your iCloud storage space, it's fine, because shared Photo Streams don't count against your storage limit. Nifty, huh?
[Note: iOS 7 updates Photo Stream to allow multiple users to push content to a single album, including video, which will only further trivialize the need for third-party apps such as this.]
This isn't just a problem with Cluster, of course, and it seems like a new half-baked social network or photo-sharing app comes out every week, but at some point developers are going to have to stop seeing opportunities where none exist.