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Instagram treks into well-worn territory with direct messages

<b>commentary</b> The social photo service's just unveiled Instagram Direct hardly breaks new ground, and really, it was a bit of a disappointment.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
2 min read
Instagram founder Kevin Systrom at an event in New York today. Sarah Tew/CNET

A little unsolicited advice to tech companies wanting to hold an event: Bring something at least moderately interesting or new to the table.

Otherwise, you end up like Instagram, which on Thursday unveiled Instagram Direct, its take on the direct and instant messaging feature that's available on virtually every other major service. The moment was, to say the least, disappointing.

Instagram, a unit of Facebook, is just the latest company to focus on upping its one-to-one messaging capabilities after building its business and customer base on its social turf. Founder Kevin Systrom spoke of Instagram as more than a photo service, but rather a core way of communications, with Direct a natural extension.

Systrom, in touting the new feature, envisions millions of conversations sparked by its trademark lens-filtered photos.

But the truth is, Instagram is just playing catch-up with the myriad of services already out in the market. Twitter on Tuesday updated its own iOS and Android apps to include photos with direct messaging, and previously opened up its direct messaging capabilities. The other obvious competitor is SnapChat, which has captivated users with its self-detonating messaging model.

With the ability to send messages (but not photos) back and forth in a threaded conversation, Instagram is essentially trying to take on the giants of the instant message world. Good luck.

There are a myriad of players in this area, including Apple's iMessage, WhatsApp, and even BlackBerry's BBM. These are established services that people are comfortable using when sending messages, photos, and video to specific people, and all come complete with their network of contacts.

It's a rough business, with entrenched players and few services and features that allow individual companies to stand out. That Instagram Direct feature that lets you know if a person has received a message or photo? Already found in multiple messaging apps. In fact, there's little in Thursday's announcement that would indicate Instagram Direct has an edge over the competition aside from camera filters.

Instagram Direct announced in NYC (pictures)

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Given Instagram's large base, there will inevitably be folks that give Direct a shot. And yes, "sexting" may see an uptick thanks to this service. But it could very well remain a niche part of the business, which is largely known for its social and broadcast capabilities.

To make matters worse, Instagram stoked the curiosity and hype levels with its cryptic invitation, which came with an image printed on a wood block. The West Coast-based business made the effort to come to New York, complete with a cozy event space in Manhattan.

Instagram certainly did its job keeping folks intrigued by the event. But if it wanted to blow us away with its announcement, it fell far short of that goal.