Flickr's new iPhone app puts mobile front and center

Smartphones are no longer a second-class citizen for using Yahoo's photo-sharing site, the company believes. An Android appis in the works.

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The new iPhone app from Flickr attempts to make the photo-sharing site fully usable with a smartphone.
The new iPhone app from Flickr attempts to make the photo-sharing site fully usable with a smartphone. Yahoo

Flickr released an overhauled iPhone app today, capping a year of effort to reclaim its lost glory with software that it believes will become central rather than peripheral to using the photo-sharing site.

The new app is designed to show off individual photos better, to ease sign-up for new users, to speed photo browsing, and to improve discovery. Better smartphone support was critical, given how much activity has moved to mobile apps.

"Engagement to a high percentage is happening on mobile," said Markus Spiering, head of the Flickr product at Yahoo. "It really brings Flickr into the palm of your hand."

Improving mobile access to Yahoo is a priority under new Chief Executive Marissa Mayer, who yesterday announced new Yahoo Mail mobile apps herself. She expects eventually that more than half of Yahoo's tech staff will work on mobile.

The new Flickr app of course puts photos front and center. Scrolling vertically shows recent photos posted by Flickr members' contacts; if you want to see more from a particular contact, you can scroll horizontally from an image.

Looking at an individual photo's page, you can read and write comments, double-tap to mark it as a favorite, and rotate the phone to landscape orientation to see a high-resolution full-screen version. Tapping an information button virtually flips over the photo to show where it was taken, what groups and sets it belongs to, and other details.

Tabs at the bottom of the app's screen let you navigate among different sections to reach Flickr services. For example, one lets you browse photos from your contacts and groups; another is for discovering photos that are interesting or were taken nearby; and another is for delving into an individual's photo stream. You can also take photos with some detailed camera controls for exposure, focus, and straightening. The uploading process lets you add title, caption, and location details.

The iPhone app will be joined by apps for other devices, Spiering added.

"We're doing iPhone in this case first, because it's the most popular camera on Flickr now," Spiering said. For example, 3,817 Flickr users uploaded 62,839 images yesterday taken with an iPhone 4S. But Android and tablet apps will follow.

"We are planning shortly after the iPhone launch to bring the experience also on Android -- a consistent experience that feels natural and native to the platform," he said. "Going forward there should not be a difference between where you use Flickr," he said, mentioning smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers.

Today, Flickr doesn't offer apps for iPad or Android tablet, though of course it can be used with the browser.

Flickr pioneered online photography, letting people share photos, comment on them, create and join groups for particular areas of interest, and use third-party software and services to use the service. It's no wonder Yahoo acquired the start-up.

In recent years, though, it's lost some of its luster as people moved online photo activity to sites with a stronger social fabric: Facebook is a natural vehicle for sharing photos with social contacts, Facebook's Instagram has successfully blended photography with social sharing, and Twitter is angling to get in on the action as well.

Perhaps because Yahoo doesn't really have social network turf to defend, Flickr has one interesting differentiator over rivals: it's relatively open. In contrast, Facebook and Twitter, which block Web crawlers, are often invisible in search engines. Twitter and Instagram are building barriers to photo sharing. Flickr, though, can be a repository for Instagram photos, and it's got a built-in mechanism for sharing to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google's Blogger, and more. And its application programming interface (API) means anything from Apple TVs to Windows 8 can integrate with Flickr's online repository.

And Flickr is still relevant if no longer cutting-edge, with 85 million active users per day.

Flickr also continued its Web site retooling, cleaning up site navigation and bringing the "justified" view that fills the screen with wall-to-wall photos to a new "explore" section of the site, Spiering said. Yahoo tests showed that user activity increased significantly with the new Web site.

"It's pretty amazing how much longer people are staying on the site, interacting more with features they didn't see before," he said.

Updated at 5:11 a.m. PT with further detail.