The startup had millions of users, but, from the beginning, just one customer.

The predominant way of interpreting Facebook’s billion-dollar purchase of Instagram, in light of the social-networking giant's forthcoming IPO, is that Mark Zuckerberg had to pick up the photo-sharing app to boost his company’s mobile engagement. That would allow him to guard the mobile flank against incursions from Google, Twitter, and whatever other social-media tools might next arise.

That may be true – and it may even be the way Zuck thought about the deal when he swallowed hard and ponied up the purchase price. But that way of analyzing Facebook’s pickup, and the pickup of dozens of other startups, not just by Facebook but by Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and others, is probably not telling the whole story. Here’s a different theory, one that better describes the tech world that we, the users of the Internet, now inhabit: Instagram may have had millions of us as its users, but it was really built for just one customer: Facebook.

Silicon Valley, for too long, has confused the issue of what it means to be a user of a website, service or app, and what it means to be a customer of the app. Intuitively, you’d think they would be one and the same: The person using the app is the person consuming the app. But increasingly, apps are being made to grab the attention of the hegemonic companies in tech. Whatever it takes to get bought.

Sure, startup CEOs are careful to refer to their user bases as just that – users – but even when money changes hands, those users are cattle to be herded toward a cell on a venture capitalist’s spreadsheet, to help the VC decide whether to fund another pivot, engineering acquisition, rack of servers, whatever. Users are just another dart, basically, that startups have to hurl at the bull's-eye and ensure success.

A colleague of mine tells a story: You can tell when a tractor was made to be purchased by a farmer, and you can tell when a tractor was made to be purchased by a corporation to be used by its employees. Tractors whose users are also the customers come equipped with every convenience, from a satellite radio to Wi-Fi to all the cupholders a farmer could dream of. They drive well, and their controls are intuitive, because that’s what the average tractor driver wants, and what the tractor competition provides. Tractors bought by companies, for earthmoving, rock breaking and the like, come equipped with nothing but a hard seat and a prayer. Employees – mere users – don’t get any say on the amenities, or lack thereof.