The social Web’s interest in images as a communications tool can be largely attributed to Instagram and Snapchat, which popularized smartphone photography and a focus on ephemerality over permanence, respectively. But there’s another company that helped push images into the forefront of the Web, and it ain’t Hipstamatic: it’s Pinterest.
Pinterest’s focus on images has spread through the Web like wildfire. The service allows its users to save and share photos from all across the Web in a simple, visual interface that has been mimicked by social networks, e-commerce companies, and seemingly every other website since its launch. Pinterest has become the primary service through which images can be bookmarked — or “pinned,” natch — and saved for later browsing.
The only problem is that it’s so damned focused on shopping and wedding photos and misanthropic e-cards that it can be hard to take Pinterest seriously. (For me, anyway. My fiancée uses the service every day, despite her general reluctance to adopt even remotely new technologies and services.) People who want to save photos without having to worry about other people stumbling across their collections, or their follower counts, or seeing a wall of “save the date” photos every time they sign on might have to look elsewhere.
That’s where Ember, an application developed by Realmac Software, comes in. The Mac-exclusive application is actually an update to LittleSnapper, a utility that made it easy to capture images from the desktop and the Web and collect ’em all in one location, like a more-capable, offline Pinterest. Ember has been updated with new browsing features, the ability to “sketch” feedback onto images, and — most notable of all — a $50 price tag. But will anyone buy it?
That depends. Having used Ember for the last few days, and having used LittleSnapper before that, I would happily pay $50 to use the application. It suits the way I work and allows me to easily grab images from around the Web that I wouldn’t necessarily want to make public. (Get your mind out of the gutter, that’ll make more sense in a moment.) LittleSnapper proved useful back when I was reviewing software for a living because it offered more granular control and a better feature-set than Apple’s built in image capture tool, which can be hard to control and simply saves images to the Desktop by default.
Unlike Pinterest, which caters to consumers and is available for free, Ember is a professional tool that costs more than many applications available today, thanks to a rapid race to the bottom of the software pricing barrel. Anyone who purchases the application is more likely to use it because they work with images, graphic design, or Web design for a living and want a better, private place to share all of that content without cluttering their Desktop or file system. The app has some social features — users can share images across their social networks, subscribe to specific websites, and the like — but is mainly meant to be used all alone.
Realmac Software seems to be making a habit of developing applications with clear competitors, many of which are often available for free. It recently released Analog Camera, a simple camera application for the iPhone, despite competition from services like Instagram, Hipstamatic, Flickr, and the like. Before that it released Clear, a to-do application that competes with the Reminders app that ships with every iPhone. Now all the company needs to do is release a calendar app and a nowcasting service and it’ll directly compete with many of the busiest categories in the App Store.
Ember seems to be a throwback to a time when images were used primarily as inspiration or, as I called them last week, “relics of remembrance.” Instagram taught the world that it was okay to capture images of every passing moment, share them to a network, and then interact with others through those images instead of via text. Snapchat popularized the notion that images don’t have to last forever and can be deleted after a few seconds of viewing. Pinterest encouraged both models by making the Web a more visual place where people could quickly save, share, and browse through a large number of images without having to deal with slideshows or cluttered interfaces.
Ember wants to act as a digital scrapbook that you don’t share with your friends, family, or followers; as a source of inspiration that doesn’t have to be “re-pinned” or browsed through by complete strangers; and as a place where photos can last for as long as your hard-drive holds out or as long as you need them to instead of being deleted a few seconds later. And it’s doing so through a native application that costs more than most of the popular apps in the App Store.
Whether or not that will work for Realmac Software depends on how many people want to use images as something more than a communications tool, which goes against many of the recent trends on the Web, social or otherwise.