Here be dragons: old websites are doomed to die

Can websites bounce back from disruption. The rebirth of Flickr suggests that it might just be possible…

Here’s a dragon that needs slaying in the digital world: old is bad, new is good. Read enough around the internet, and you’ll hear repeatedly that thing x is going to kill off thing y, because thing x is newer and more shiny and probably more mobile. That pretty much never happens, though. Sites tend to fall through their own actions or inactions. Digg wasn’t killed off by Reddit – it lost its way (and has been reborn). Reddit itself is a pretty similar age. Sites can, and do, rebound from a bad patch.

Take Flickr as an example. For years, it was the darling of photosharing. Beloved of bloggers, home to many photography communities, and a shiny example of a Web 2.0 star. It was acquired by Yahoo, and the decline began. New features didn’t emerge nearly as fast as they used to. Founders left, leaving strange letters behind. Users revolted over login changes.

Then, finally, it was completely steamrollered by the rise of services like Instagram, and the rise of Facebook as the biggest single photo hosting service in the world.

That’s it, then. Flickr’s dead, right? Well, no. In a beautiful bit of timing, just as Instagram caused an uproar with a change to its terms and conditions, Flickr came up with a brand new mobile app – and people liked it.

The Verge ran an interesting interview with the man behind Flickr, and he seems to understand what need to be done. Two key principles seem to emerge:

So how do you take this to mobile in a way where its very easy to use, so that people can quickly see the latest activity from their friends, quickly take and share photos in the best quality possible? But then how do you add in the richness that the Flickr platform has?

I think that’s our leading design principle: finding the right balance between ease of use and providing a very powerful tool to users.

Flickr always had a richness of tools. Balancing that with the simplicity of the interfaces of newer competitors is a smart move – make it easy to use and pick-up, but leave depth for advanced users to progress to.

Beyond the interface, he has wider aspirations to make Flickr a central photo player:

Almost every photo sharing app — Hipstamatic, Instagram, a lot of other services — uses the Flickr API to post photos or retrieve photos. On the desktop, that is very popular with our users, we have Adobe Lightroom, iPhoto. On tablets you have Flipboard. On the web you have services like Pinterest which integrate with Flickr. Apple TV and Google TV have Flickr built in.

In other words, Flickr is both a service and a platform. Simple, and deep. It’s own thing, and the back-end for other things. Markus Spiering is taking the best of the old web world – robust APIs and platform thinking – and the best of the new – mobile focus, simplicity – and making the site a competitor. The dragon is on the rocks – can he deliver the deathblow?