Mobile photo sharing has been dominated by social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and (of course) Instagram. With a surprise mobile redesign, the venerable online photo sharing site Flickr wants a piece of that mobile action – and they're on the right track. The new Flickr app for Android (which is free) has a slick interface, photo editing tools, and filters for an all-in-one photo experience wherever you are. But it might not be social enough to beat out the competition.
While the site languished under Yahoo’s watch until recently, it's still popular with professional photographers and artists. Flickr wisely chose to make this high quality content the centrepiece of the app, frequently pushing an endless stream of the service's best photographs.
The app shows off most of its content through the Explore section, which also displays algorithmically selected images pertaining to your location. This is a really neat feature, showing off different takes on familiar areas, and some you might not have seen before. It's almost like looking through someone else's eyes.
Be careful, though: When you select an image to view full screen, your Android device won't dim the screen or go to sleep automatically.
However, I'd like to explore images from locations other than where I am currently standing. This is available on the Flickr website, but isn't supported in the app.
Shooting with Flickr
A small camera icon appears in the upper right corner of just about every single screen in the app, so you can quickly shoot and upload new pictures.
I hadn't used Flickr's Android app before, and was surprised to find a bunch of Instagram-like filters at the first stage of mobile uploading. I'm sure this is going to be a contentious point for diehard Flickr users, but it's a fun addition that can give your mobile phone pictures just a little more life.
Thanks to the Aviary editor, Flickr's mobile app includes a robust slate of photo editing tools. These give Flickr a strong leg-up on its competitors, but the editing button is small and almost hidden in the upper right of the image. It's really easy to miss, though I like that it's not a required part of the upload process.
You can also geo-locate your image à la Instagram, as well as add tags, sets, titles, a safety rating, and privacy settings as you would through the website. The process is streamlined, so some of these options are hidden in an "advanced" section. That's fine, but I'd like the fields to be larger for easier reading and finger tapping.
You can also upload photos you took earlier, and Flickr beats out Instagram here by simply allowing you to select multiple photos for upload. Unfortunately, the app's navigation gets a bit confusing here. If you want to edit each photo before you upload, and you probably will, you need to swipe left and right during the edit phase. If you hit the inviting blue Next button, you'll be too late.
For a redesign with such an emphasis on appealing design, Flickr is an awkward app to navigate. While navigation trays can be well executed, they're often not, and Flickr is no exception. For most of the app, you'll have to open the tray on the left side of the screen by swiping to the right or tapping the icon in the upper left.
But sometimes (usually when you're in a settings menu, looking at a photo, or a user page) you need to use the "back" button to navigate. It's awkward having to transition between these two modes, and I frequently exited the app accidentally by hitting back one too many times.
The app is also identical for both mobile phones and tablets, leading to some strange interface issues. On the search page, for instance, I completely missed the buttons for searching photos, people, and groups on the Nexus 7 because they were acres away from the text field. It was much easier to see on a Samsung Galaxy S3, where the buttons took up less space on the screen.
I should note that there have been some odd hiccups since Flickr rolled out the new app. Most appear to be on Flickr's end of things, with some pages not loading and in one case uploading the same picture twice. I'm assuming that the site's dramatic announcement is generating a lot of interest, perhaps more than Flickr expected, and the backend is suffering as a result.
A social picture
The mobile space isn’t just about storing photos, but also sharing them with other people. Flickr's mobile app has sharing options on every image, allowing you to send a link via email, Twitter, or Facebook depending on the settings laid down by the photo's author. You can also share your own images during the upload process.
Groups are a big part of the Flickr social picture, and you can easily add photos to them during upload. If you're not already following any groups, Flickr will recommend some. The app is also fairly robust in terms of group interaction, letting you add photos, comments, and so on. You can even leave groups, and remove your photos from the group, all from the app.
Though the Flickr app has most of the tools from the website, it leaves some important ones out. When uploading images, I couldn't find a way to tag individuals in the picture – which you can do from the Flickr website.
The app has a fast and robust account creation process baked in (I was particularly impressed that it asked for my phone number and then sent me a confirmation text), but once your account exists, you can't make a lot of changes from the app.
In general, Flickr needs to learn more from other social apps. Flickr doesn't feel as seamless as Instagram or as full-featured as Facebook, both of which are far better as apps than websites.
Flickr's Android redesign is on the right track by putting the focus on viewing and adding beautiful pictures quickly and easily from wherever you are. It also manages to bundle most of what you can do on the website, though it leaves out some management features.
The app's biggest fault is in navigation, which needs to be clearer and uniform throughout the app. Flickr wisely put the focus of the redesign on its great user content, and in letting you add new content from your phone. But it needs to be more social and robust if it's going to compete with the likes of Facebook, Tumblr, and especially Instagram. Flickr seems to be torn between the serious photographers it already has on its website and the more casual mobile photographers it wants.
Unfortunately, I doubt that mobile is really a big priority for Flickr. Along with a refreshed website, Flickr also announced 1TB of free photo storage. That alone will probably be a big enough draw to get people on the website, which is where the ad impressions happen. The app is a nice addition though, and it will surely get some compulsive phone photographers on board. It does need work, but I am not convinced that Yahoo has the will to invest in making Flickr a true mobile competitor.