SAN FRANCISCO -- Instagram is not a photography company.
That message, which might shock some of the 100 million-plus people who have uploaded more than 5 billion photos to Instagram, is what co-founder Kevin Systrom made clear during a discussion tonight among him and co-founder Mike Krieger and Digg founder and Google Ventures partner Kevin Rose.
The discussion, part of the Commonwealth Club's Inforum series, was an opportunity for hundreds of Instagram fans to hear first-hand a bit of the history -- and perhaps some of the future -- of the popular photo-sharing app. Even if that's not what Instagram really is.
In fact, Systrom said, Instagram is a communications company. "It's about communicating a moment (to someone). It just happens to be an image...It's about more than that. It's about communicating a message."
One would have to imagine that Facebook, which acquired Instagram last year for $715 million in cash and stock, got an inside look at the future offerings from its hot new toy. And to hear Systrom tell it, everything that he and his team of about 34 people plan to do from here on out will be geared towards enhancing the experience of the Instagram community. Even if it means letting other apps carry the heavy lifting of innovating in the photo-filtering space.
Instead, Instagram may someday turn to letting people share video, though neither Systrom nor Krieger would say so specifically. "I didn't [just] say Instagram is here to capture the world's photography," Systrom said. "I think it's about right time, right place, right tools, right technology."
He added that any company, be it Vine, or any other video-sharing service, that can successfully build a business around "putting over the wire the equivalent of 30 images a second" will have achieved a lot.
Though Systrom, Krieger, and many of Instagram's earliest employees are no doubt now rich, and though the company's investors had successful exits, the co-founders know that they must eventually be a sustainable business.
That's in spite of the fact that they are comfortably in Facebook's warm embrace. Systrom told Rose that he and Krieger committed to their early venture capitalists that they would eventually build a profitable company. But he's still not willing to say publicly what will get the company there. "We want to make sure that the experience, no matter whether it's introducing a new feature or advertising, feels right," Systrom said, "and doesn't fundamentally change the features you all love."
But one direction Instagram is unlikely to take is offering premium accounts, as the photo-sharing service Flickr does. "We're not in the business of charging folks a subscription" fee, Systrom said, adding that asking users to pay for premium filters is "not what gets me up in the morning."
And despite an uproar last year about whether or not Instagram -- especially once it was bought by Facebook -- maintained ownership rights to users' photos, Systrom insisted that that was never the case. "Absolutely not," he said. "Never, ever would we take any rights that mean we can sell your photos, or do anything to your photos that's weird....You own your photos. We are just there to facilitate sharing your photos with the world."
Correction at 5:10 a.m. PT May 31: The order of the names in the photograph has been fixed.