For the past year, a team of developers have been working on an alternative to photo-sharing services that lock your work into a single service, and now they've released a public iPhone app that works along with their web service. OpenPhoto, funded by a Kickstarter project, lets you upload, share, tag, and comment on photos just like Flickr, Instagram, or any other service, but those images don't live on its servers. Instead, they're sent to your account on Dropbox, Amazon S3, or other cloud storage applications. The idea is to give users control over where they keep their photos, letting them move or back them up easily. It's also open source, which means you can use OpenPhoto's own web-hosted version, install the code on a server of your own, or tweak it to create your own version.
OpenPhoto is free on both iPhone and the web, so we gave it a try with a Dropbox account. On the web, it works as a fairly spare photo uploading service: you can view photos, manage galleries, and check where they're being stored. On iPhone, you'll get a few more options, including photo editing by cross-platform tool Aviary and the option to send a photo to Facebook or Twitter when you upload it. It's an interesting idea, and a direct counterpoint to services like Instagram, which create streamlined and user-friendly tools but are based on keeping their subscribers tied to a single service.
Unfortunately, the current version of OpenPhoto feels like it has a long way to go. Aviary on the iPhone includes a set of filters, but the social component that has drawn many people to Instagram seems completely absent so far — there are places for comments and favorites, but there's no easy way to navigate to another user's public photos. The iPhone app is well-designed but feels undercooked: in order to log in, for example, you'll need to enter your username and email address, then get redirected to a web browser to complete the login process over two screens before returning. Since the app is supposed to work with either the central OpenPhoto service or self-hosted versions, it's reasonable to expect a little extra work, but there must be simpler ways to implement it.
Dropbox syncing worked well, and the date-based organization of photos within the app's folder is intuitive. Without web-based photo editing or a social network, though, it doesn't feel like there's an incredibly strong reason to use it at this point rather than simply adding photos directly to the cloud. It's definitely in an early adopter stage at this point, so we're hoping to see more progress and a fuller set of features soon.