Photo app PicsArt expands its focus from Android to iOS

Photo editing and sharing applications have developed into one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds in mobile software. Just this month alone, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB)-owned Instagram disabled all Twitter integration, prompting Twitter to roll out filters of its own; Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) released a new Android version and updated iOS version of Snapseed, the photo-sharing app it acquired this fall; and Yahoo dramatically overhauled its Flickr app for iPhone.

But it's not only the big brands making waves: PicsArt, released for Android in November 2011, has emerged as a grass-roots phenomenon, generating more than 30 million downloads and more than 500,000 Google Play users reviews without any of the brand notoriety and marketing muscle boosting its rivals. PicsArt--a division of Mountain View, Calif.-based SocialIn--created its eponymous app out of frustration with the limited functionally available in other free photo services; over the past year, PicsArt has grown past de rigueur features like cropping and filtering to become a full-fledged mobile art studio, complete with tools enabling users to add motion and blending effects, create collages and insert clip art, text and related graphical enhancements. The app also encompasses its own social networking architecture, designed to make it easier for users to share and discover images from across the PicsArt community.

Look for PicsArt to continue gaining momentum in 2013: A version optimized for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS was recently submitted for App Store approval. FierceDeveloper contributor Jason Ankeny spoke to PicsArt co-founder and CTO Arto Mehrabyan about the app's success on Android, its expansion to iOS and the importance of giving the people what they want.

Arto Mehrabyan

   Arto Mehrabyan

Arto Mehrabyan on PicsArt's evolution: PicsArt is a one-stop studio for mobile photography. Our users are not switching between apps--they have everything they want in a single place. We give you a lot of options to use. [PicsArt] is not for the user who wants to click one button and have everything ready. It's all in your hands. That creates the opportunity to become more artistic.

Everything in PicsArt, like our clip art, was created inside our company. We built in a lot of small things--one by one, they may not look sexy or effective, but in combination and over time, they have a good effect.

We also created our own social network so users can share their photos with other "PicArtists." That's what we call them. It's not a memory or event-based social network. It's more about sharing art. We found people want to create art and share it with each other. They want to create and discover other art, not find existing friends.

PicsArt was not designed to be like it is now. It's the evolutionary outcome of working with and collaborating with users. We're always listening to users, and seeing what works and what doesn't work. For example, PicsArt didn't have a social network at the beginning--that came out of communication with users. It's something they wanted to have. If you go to Google Play and look at our reviews, users know we're listening to them and doing what they want.

PicsArt Collage

 PicsArt lets users create collages.

We've done it all without funding and without any push from Google. It's all word of mouth from users. We're very proud of that.

Mehrabyan on developing for Android: When we discovered the Android market, we immediately realized its potential. It looked like a Wild West, with a lot of opportunity. For a startup entering the mobile market, we knew that if we went to iOS, we would have to compete with more polished apps and larger companies. Those things were not present at that time in Android Market.

When we started with Android, there were a lot of limitations to the OS itself. It's not like it is now. Devices had limited memory and power, and it was very buggy.  To support it required a lot more work. A lot of developers don't want to do more work. They want to avoid that. But we knew that if we could do things on limited devices with limited memory, we could do even better things on bigger, smarter devices. We feel we have the power to do a quality application on any device.

Mehrabyan on porting PicsArt to iOS: We're submitting PicsArt to the App Store now, and we believe it will be available soon. From the very beginning, we've been getting emails from users asking for an iPhone version. But that demand is not enough. PicsArt was sill maturing at that time, and it was not ready for the iPhone market. Even if you want to give the user something, sometimes you can't--you have to mature as a company, and the market has to mature. Everything has its effect. You have to feel it's the right time.

We think this is the right time. The momentum behind PicsArt is very strong. When we posted the iPhone announcement on Facebook, we got a lot of amazing feedback. People are changing from Android phones to the iPhone, and they can't find something like PicsArt in the App Store. PicsArt is not just a tool--it's a tool with communities, and [expanding to iOS] is going to expand our community.


The app allows users to add clip art to photos.

Mehrabyan on PicsArt's business model: We are self-funded, and almost all of our revenue comes from advertising. We use advertising in a very modest way. Our traffic is strong enough for us to be positive on cash flow and to grow. We value our users, and we don't want to bother them with ads. We could earn much more, but we don't want to be too aggressive.

Mehrabyan on remaining competitive: It's very easy and very complex at the same time. The easy answer is that we're doing this with heart. We understand our users and what they want. The photo space has always been occupied: A lot of apps have come and gone despite a lot of funding, like Color. Others came in but are still stuck where they are.

If you go to the U.S. version of [Google Play], we are in the top 50 of all apps, not just No. 1 in photography. We're there along with some very famous apps. We're not competing with Instagram and Google--we're giving the user more content and more art. Use PicsArt, and you see that it's different.

We're working very hard. We built this from scratch. It's like our grown-up child. It's not like other products. We're giving users what they want to have.

Mehrabyan's advice for aspiring mobile developers: Value your user and value your work. Be ready for hard work--if you're not, nothing will help you. Communication with the user is another key. Listen to them and understand them.

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better.

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