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Photo filters the first shot fired in Twitter-Facebook war Add to ...

One of the most interesting new tech wars to gain a spotlight in recent months is the one between Twitter and Facebook. Facebook has long looked down its nose at Twitter, which it has seen as a more niche product without the wide appeal of Facebook’s service. It has also thought the management team is less focused on the company’s future.

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Facebook director and original backer Peter Thiel once said if you threw a bomb into Twitter headquarters at 6 p.m., no one would get injured because everyone would have already gone home for the day.

Even as Twitter got more serious over time with the hiring of Dick Costolo as CEO, Adam Bain as head of revenue, and the return of Jack Dorsey, Facebook has never been particularly threatened by Twitter – until this year.

As the shift to mobile became increasingly apparent, Mark Zuckerberg realized that he needed to take some action. To his credit, he bought Instagram before anyone else could get their act together to make a move themselves.

Instagram had been exploding in popularity and was completely mobile based. Mr. Zuckerberg used his high-flying stock and some cash to swoop in over an April weekend and close the deal.

Instagram founder Kevin Systrom had first come up with the germ of the idea that became Instagram while an intern working for Jack Dorsey. The two were close. Mr. Dorsey exclusively used Instagram to publish his photos on Twitter. Mr. Dorsey had also begun conversations with Mr. Systrom about acquiring Instagram.

But that all changed when Mr. Zuckerberg moved first. Since then, Mr. Dorsey’s never used Instagram and now – over the weekend – word trickled out that Twitter will launch its own Instagram competitor product soon.

Monday, in comments at a tech conference, Mr. Systrom downplayed the threat of Twitter to Instagram by saying: “Instagram is a community, not a filters app.”

Of course, Twitter isn’t stupid. Of course, it’ll go beyond “just filters” in its photo product. The company was smart to realize that the biggest thing it brings to the party is its user base. There’s no sense in buying any other photo service for users because they’ll be puny by comparison. Therefore, the only reason to buy someone else is for some amazing whiz-bang photo sharing product. But, frankly, there’s none out there that Twitter can’t do itself with the right people and sufficient focus.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball says putting out just a filters photo app is a bad idea. From his post Monday: “If Twitter wanted to make it easier to post photos as tweets, and improve the presentation of inline photos in your tweet stream, that I could see. ...”

I also think there’s a market for a killer iPhone photo filtering app: something less focused on retro faux-analog gimmicks and more focused on the sort of one-touch improvements you can make in desktop apps like Lightroom and Aperture. There are a slew of pretty good apps for the iPhone that let you make such improvements to your photos, but I still haven’t seen one that’s truly great – combining a convenient fast workflow with aesthetically superior filters.

And, look, he’s right. There is a lot of opportunity to innovate in this niche of mobile photo sharing.

In my view, there are four companies that have the opportunity to make a huge splash still in mobile photo sharing:

  • Instagram/Facebook: 100 million users. The core product works great. Any new innovations that are smart will get usage.
  • Twitter: Perfectly suited to mobile photos because it is a mobile service. Already shares a great deal of photos today through a perfectly boring and limited photo app. Its 175 million users will immediately start using the service if it’s marginally better that the current offering. If it’s as good as Instagram, it will spark mass usage. If it’s better than Instagram, it will really generate a lot of usage.
  • Apple: Apple has massive photo usage on its iPhone. It also has signed up an enormous amount of people to use its iCloud service to back up photos taken. Yet, it’s stumbled to come up with an app to allow easy sharing of photos. You would think this is a natural area to improve but it hasn’t.
  • Yahoo!’s Flickr: People forget about the former king of photo sharing, Flickr. There’s a good reason for that. It was totally neglected for the last seven years. It could have been Instagram. Even though nothing’s happened at Flickr for a long time, it’s got a great core app. Now it finally has some upper management love from Marissa Mayer and new SVP of mobile Adam Cahan. The company could still do a lot of interesting things with the core Flickr app and storage options to breathe some new life into Flickr. It can also play Switzerland to Apple, Samsung or others if it doesn’t get its act together in this niche area.

The bottom line is that this burgeoning war between Facebook and Twitter is just getting started. Watch for more fireworks soon as they battle to own the mobile user in social.

At the time of publication the author had positions in AAPL and YHOO.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet’s regular news coverage.

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