The 5 Requirements For a Successful Photo Management Solution

A Brief History

Managing the 10s of thousands of photos we now take has been a challenge for years.  Before online storage was as cheap as it is now, there were desktop solutions.  As technology improved and storage prices dropped, online solutions such as Smugmug were born.  The waters became murkier with quality cameras exploding inside the smartphone revolution.  I no longer have just my point and shoot or DSLR, I’ve got a phone with lots of pictures on it as well.  So everyone jumped on the app bandwagon and started making mobile apps to help manage the photos you take on your phone.

Photos Today

We are now at a point where there are an overwhelming number of apps, desktop programs, and web sites, ranging from free to hundreds of dollars a year to help you store and manage all your photos.  I’ve kicked the tires on as many of these as I can over the years, hoping one company would offer a comprehensive solution to meet my photo needs, only to be disappointed.  I still rely on a patchwork solution of desktop, mobile, and online tools.  With all of this, it still  falls short of covering some of my basic needs, and failing to provide an efficient and pleasant user experience.  Often, due to cost constraints, I’m faced with making tradeoffs in what functionality I get from different services.  For example, I love the daily history emails from PictureLife and ThisLife.  However each service costs about ~$150 a year to handle my entire set of photos.  I would only need to choose one of them, but beyond the emails, I don’t get much benefit out of the service.  I need a service like SepiaLife that connects to wherever my photos are to show me photos from the past.

The Future of Photo Management

Every photo app/site/desktop solution has its checkbox list of awesome features.  Startups have been cropping up left and right the past couple years to help people deal with the onslaught of photos they are taking.  Most of them die, such as Everpix, even with a couple of awesome little gem features in them.  For a comprehensive photo solution to be successful, there are 5 key requirements I believe must be met.  Without every single one of them, I believe the lifespan of the solution is limited.

All Devices & All Screens

This is a pretty obvious but big one.  I have a phone, possibly a tablet, desktop computer, and laptop computer.  I take tons of photos with my phone, but I also have a GoPro, DSLR, and point and shoot.  Photos are coming from multiple devices.  Oh, and don’t forget your spouse and possibly even children.  There are probably 5-15 devices your family wants near instant access to view and/or manage any photo you’ve ever taken.  Then there is the time you are at your friends house and you want to show them some photos on their computer.  You need to be able to access your photos from pretty much any device in the world at any time.

There is one more important screen I haven’t mentioned yet, your TV.  This is THE focal point in the home for viewing photos in my opinion.  What matters Children looking at photos on tvhere is that you want to be able to view your photos on your TV, or even a friends TV when you go over for a visit.  AppleTV, Chromecast, Roku, Xbox, and numerous other solutions offer the ability to view photos on your TV.  Unfortunately you need to meet a very narrow set of requirements in order for this to work.  Even then, I can’t tell you the frustration I’ve had 2 years in a row trying to get a photo slide show set up for our kids’ birthday party.

 Cross Platform

Within your family you might all have one ecosystem of devices, but chances are that probably isn’t true.  Apple, Google, and Microsoft likely have their tentacles into your device ecosystem somewhere, or at least two of them.  3rd party solutions have pretty much known they need to be cross platform in their solutions and have apps for Apple, Google, and Microsoft devices desktop and mobile.  Apple still tends to focus only on its ecosystem, expecting every device you care to access your content on is an Apple device.  This certainly isn’t true for me, and I am sure I am not alone.  Even if I did have all Apple products, the capabilities offered by Apple for photos is very limited, especially with the death of Aperture.  That said, I never used Aperture because Adobe Lightroom is so much better.  Microsoft is feeling a bit less confident in its market dominance these days and has been opening up more and more to making solutions that work cross platform.  Google I believe has been the best of these 3 at building solutions to span all devices.

When considering cross platform compatibility for a solution, I’m talking phones, tablets, desktops, laptops, and tv devices (apple TV, Chromecast, Xbox, Amazon Fire TV, etc.)   That is a lot of different devices to evaluate and be sure a photo solution works!

FREE Storage

Americans love free things, even if the true cost is a loss of complete privacy.  One of the largest costs to photo solutions has historically been the expense of storing the photos.  We’ve all be reached the point where the cost is now free.  Flickr offers 1 terabyte of free photo space.  Microsoft is offering unlimited OneDrive storage with an Office 365  subscription.  Google and Dropbox offer 1 terabyte of storage for ~$120 a year.  Yes a lot of money, but is actually at an affordable level for many.  Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are all in a race to free for storage as part of their cloud storage platforms.  Just this week Amazon announced unlimited free photo storage for Prime members.  I don’t think it will be long before you can expect free storage for all your photos from a dozen or more services.  This doesn’t mean you should never expect to pay for software to help manage your photos, it just means the storage should be effectively free.  When comparing the hundreds or even thousands of software solutions out there, assume storage costs are $0, and think about the functionality offered for the given price.  As I mentioned above, is $150/year from Thislife or PictureLife worth it for daily emails form the past?  No way, that is crazy expensive compared to the $120 I pay for Adobe Creative Cloud in which I get Lightroom and Photoshop.

Interoperability

The needs and desires of every person who takes photos is endless.  No single company will ever be able to build a solution that meets the needs of everyone.  When I add metadata to a photo, I need to know that no matter what software I use on my phone, tablet, desktop, or tv viewer will be able to view that metadata to enhance my experience.  That is pretty much nailed for the date/time the photo was taken.  For location, it is decent as well.  Beyond that, all bets are off.   I get lots of great face tagging in Facebook and Google+, but that doesn’t help me in my Lightroom catalog.  I have an organized folder structure on my computer of all my photos, but ThisLife and PictureLife for example, don’t recognize that as anything valuable.  I need to recreate all my albums in those services.  If I use PicMonkey to edit a photo, will my iPhone or Lightroom recognize the edits so I can undo an edit, or change it?  Nope, sorry.   The foundation of my photo solution needs to be a system that offers seamless interoperability so that I can can augment it with addition tools to meet my needs.

Developer API

A key running assumption I have here is that you are storing your photos in the cloud (or at least a backup copy of them.)   The reality of my current situation is that my photo masters are still on my desktop, with backups sync’d to the cloud.  The future of photos is everyone having the masters in the cloud.  All the devices that take photos will automatically upload new photos to my online photo repository, wherever that is.

Once there, I need the ability to manage and do things with the photos, everything I’ve been talking about in this blog post so far.  A lot of these basic capabilities should be offered by the company providing the solution.  Google for example makes it easy to backup photos from my phone(s) and computers.  I can view these photos on my TV with Chromecast, or use any web browser to view the photos.  My photos are all on Google, now what do I do?  I make another copy and put them on my desktop so I can use Lightroom for the more powerful management and editing capabilities.  This entire experience is clumsy and time consuming.  The interoperability I just talked about needs to improve, but also the developer APIs offered by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and other photo sites.  For a photo service to be successful, the developer API is critical.  For example, Lightroom should be able to talk natively to Google using a rich set of photo APIs.  All my changes made in Lightroom should be automatically saved to my master photo store in Google and reflected in any other software or devices connected to my photos.

The idea of enabling developers to advance your platform and ecosystem is not new.  Microsoft did it with Windows, Apple with iPhone, and Google with Android.  If the APIs are there to enable developers to build great things, they will come.  Google’s API for example is horribly outdated and doesn’t take advantage of the rich data associated with our photos.  Microsoft is still trying to figure out how to build a quality, developer platform for cloud services.  Facebook isn’t even a real photo storage service because it rips out metadata and doesn’t store the original photo file. Flickr is the best example of a more modern API built specifically for photos.

Summary

For a photo solution to succeed, it needs all of these ingredients.  As much as I like the user experiences and some of the features from PictureLife and ThisLife, I believe they are destined to go the way of Everpix, poof.  ThisLife may be an exception because it was purchased by Shutterfly which has other incentives to get people to use the service.  Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Flickr, and some others have deep pockets and scale to offer that super critical free storage (even if they aren’t quite there yet.)   Not a single one of them really delivers on all these capabilities yet.  This past week another new startup, Mylio, released their attempt at a solution.  I’ve been using it since one of the betas.  While the user experience is nice, I am not sure how they are going to be able to make a business out of it.  The offering just seems to similar to other attempts and also doesn’t meet my 5 requirements.

We’ve come a long way since the dawn of digital photos and I think we’ve got a long way to go.  I’m hoping with the storage cost variable nearly out of the way, it will accelerate the focus on all the other aspects of building a solution for the world.  In the mean time, armies of developers, myself included, will keep plugging away trying to do our part to get more out of our photos.

Groovebook – The Recurring Groupon

For those who don’t know what Groovebook is, it is a subscription service that will send you a 4×6 photo book of up to 100 of your photos, every month, for $2.99.

You will forget to order your photo book, several times a year

I compare Groovebook to Groupon because if you actually use your subscription to the max every month,loose change then awesome, I think you are getting a pretty darn good deal. If you aren’t, then Groovebook is just taking your money to the bank. Groovebook knows, just like Groupon, that people are busy, and choosing 100 photos is time consuming! My napkin math tells me that Groovebook’s business model assumes 25-50% of books will never be ordered. I would not be surprised at all if this is what is actually happening.

Bad attitude towards customers

This sort of approach in a business model isn’t new, and I don’f feel like there is anything inherently wrong with it.  If that is what makes a business viable, and consumers still come and make it thrive, great, so long as everyone is happy.   What really rubs me the wrong way is that Groovebook has taken some fairly common tactics to make the bad deal (not ordering every book) even worse than it needs to be.  For one, you can just not order a book one month, but you still pay $2.99.  Umm, really?  And this is what the Groovebook FAQ says about it “No problem, we will still keep your account active. The fee of $2.99 is a subscription cost, so it will still be charged if you decide not to receive a book one month. We hope this is such a small fee that you will not choose to cancel GrooveBook.”  Let me translate this last sentence to what Groovebook is thinking “we know people are busy and you will never get around to canceling anyway, so we will just keep taking your money even if we don’t offer you any value.”

No self service ‘cancel my subscription’ from the app or website

Wait, it gets better.  If you do want to cancel your subscription, you need to email them.  There is no self service ‘cancel my account’ on their web site or app.  This sort of tactic is used by cable companies, phone companies, gym memberships, etc because they want to make it hard for you to stop wasting your money and them pocketing it.  I’m a firm believer in giving customers control and an awesome user experience.   Always make them feel like you are giving them the best overall experience ever and it is worth every penny they spend on it.  The Groovebook FAQ is like giving you the middle finger, “hey it’s only $2.99, chump change, forget about it.” That is not the kind of attitude I want from a business I am considering purchasing a product from.

To this day, I haven’t ordered a Groovebook.  The primary reason was the 100 photos. I don’t have the time to find 100 photos, and I don’t really want 100 photos floating around every month.  Now, what is really keeping me from buying is the email required to cancel and their attitude about paying even when you don’t order a book one month.

So Groovebook, an awesome deal or a horrible deal, it’s up to you.  Are you the super diligent person who will take on this task every month?  You will get a nice book subsidized by all the people who for whatever reason never get around to ordering one.. Before signing up, really think about whether or not the way you will use it and if it will ultimately be worthwhile.

Photo Printing Sites & Apps Are Focusing On The Wrong Thing

Higher Quantity, Lower Cost, and Pricing Games

shutteflydiscount

Sample ad I saw for a crazy amount of free prints

For as long as I can remember, sites where you can get photos printed in books, 4×6 prints, cards, calendars, cups, etc. have seemingly been in constant discount mode so long as you know the secret code to get the discount.  This year things have taken a little bit of a shift and and competition has heated up.  Now the focus is on how many prints you can get for the least amount of money.  Groovebook is offering 100 prints in a book for $2.99, delivered.  This Labor Day Shutterfly had a promotion to get 101 prints for free.  PhotoAffections came out with an iOS app called Free Prints earlier this year, up to 1000 free* prints per year.   I barely have the time to choose 1 or 2 photos to print, let alone 101, or 1000!

Fast, Simple, Quality

mosaic

Mosaic Book home page

What I think the vast majority of people want is simplicity and consistency.  I want simplicity in pricing, ease of choosing a product, easy of choosing photo(s) for the product(s) I want to purchase.  I love the Mosaic app for all of these reasons. $20, 20 photos, in a well design photo book, all the time, super simple, done.  Ease of use and shortest path to completing the purchase are key.  Sure, I could spend $2.99 and get 100 prints in a book from Groovebook.  However the book is junk compared to what Mosaic offers.  Also, who has time to choose 100 photos at once?  Sometimes I want 100 photos in a book, but that is rare, and in those cases I will need to spend more time to choose the photos, which I don’t have now.  I’m willing to pay more per photo for a quality, simple, fast purchasing experience.  It isn’t about the cheapest 4×6 print folks!  Parting with 13 cents for a 4×6 print isn’t what is keeping people away from buying more prints from you.

Postcard Back

Back of #SepiaMail postcard

Pricing games are not a way to gain faithful customers in the long run.  The price I am going to pay needs to be consistent day to day.  My time as a parent is limited enough, I don’t want to have to hunt for a discount code, wait for the window to open, then order my prints.  I need to strike while the iron is hot.  I’ve got my photo, I want it sent to to my parents and grandparents, I want to do it now, and I’m willing to pay X amount for it.  #SepiaMail, a new service from Sepia Life is another examples that is trying to give people what they really want from a photo printing service.  When I’m posting a photo to Facebook of my son or daughter riding their bike or climbing a tree, I want my family who isn’t on Facebook to see the photo as well.  With #SepiaMail I can just add #SepiaMail #grandparents #sister to the end of caption as I’m writing it for the post, and #SepiaMail will print the photo and send it as a 4×6 postcard to my grandparents and sister.  I didn’t need to spend the time doing an entirely separate photo selection and publish workflow to get the postcards sent in another app or site.  Just a few extra taps on my phone when I’m already posting a photo, and I’m done.

Other gotchas with pricing

Since I brought up the topic of pricing games and some examples, I thought I’d go into some of the nitty gritty details on the games that are played.  For the FreePrints app there are a variety of restrictions and upsells, but the primary way they cover costs, and most certainly make money is you always pay shipping, $1.99 minimum. I select all the photos in one of my Facebook albums, 68, and it was gong to charge me $8.99 for shipping.  So I’d be paying ~13 center per photo, not a bad deal, but not free.  For comparison, Shutterly charges 15 cents per 4×6 print, so the Free Prints app is competitive with that, but again not free.  Free Prints is simply a product built around marketing, taking advantage of people’s thirst for free goods, and many people’s lack of time/desire/etc to bother looking into whether or not they are getting a good deal or not.

Free Prints is really the app that has taken cost games to the extreme for photo prints, and represents one of the huge problems I see in photo printing.  I personally can’t stand pricing games such as the ones Free Prints, Shutterfly, and most photo printing sites use.  I don’t think I’m alone here either.  The sites are set up so that unless you pay attention and do more work, you are probably going to get screwed and pay way more than you really should for your photo print product.

Summary

Photo printing needs to evolve so it isn’t a chore.  It needs to adapt to fit into my lifestyle and the way in which I view and share photos.  #SepiaMail is just one simple way in which this can be done.  Digital photos online are great, but I’m convinced that physical prints are the best way to love your photos again, and again, and again…

Why Photo Sharing Is Still Broken

Every month of every year, I have the same problem. I got together with some friends or family, we all took photos, and I never get to see them all in a single unified view, and some not at all! This boggles my mind given that digital cameras have been around more than a decade and the internet has permeated almost every aspect of our lives.

With physical prints, getting a single album of photos from all people involved in an event was logistically challenging and expensive because it involved physical goods. When you got everyone together though, you could easily go through and view all the photos for an event in a comfortable and consistent manner. Sadly in the digital world, things are not much better, perhaps even worse, but for different reasons.

Location

People have their photos locked up on their phone/computer. Or if they do put them online, they post things to their account on their service of choice. So not only are my friends’ photos not in a single album ‘Friends Camping Trip 2014’, they are in a different account and possibly even different site. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to use the same photo service as there are so many with different capabilities.

Coordinate Beforehand

Up front planning is even difficult to wrangle people into combining photos in the same location, except for the more devoted photographers. Of the dozens to hundreds of people I overlap with in a given year in terms of photos that I’d like to see in common albums, they photos are likely stored across dozens of different online services. There are features within services such as Facebook and Google+ (perhaps others as well) that make it relatively easy to share photos with a specific group on a specific event. Facebook for example has Events. You invite people to the event and have an entire social experience built around that within Facebook, including sharing photos for the event. Seems simple enough, if you could just get everyone to use Facebook AND post their photos to that event. Problem is, not only do people want to share the photos with that group of people in the event, they also want to share some of the photos with their friends and family who weren’t there, so they know what they are up to.

What does the future look like?

I’m convinced photos logically associated with a given album/event from multiple people will be physically/digitally stored across many different services. That is just the way things are going to be. Facebook has little incentive to integrate with Flickr, just as much as Flickr has little incentive to integrate with Facebook for photos. This seems silly even though some sort of integration to allow seamless viewing of related photos for an event/album is what people want and need.

Sites like Flickr, ThisLife, PictureLife, and the list goes on and on, exist to store your photos, let you annotate them in various was, and share them out via various social media outlets.  I’ll call this the fan out scenario, allow whoever I want on the internet to view the photos I choose through the services I choose.

Possible Solution

What we need is the funnel scenario.  All my family, friends, and other photos that I want to see in a logical group, brought together in a seamless photo viewing experience.  In its most basic form, the logical group could be the party we were all at, the weekend we spent together, or anyone who was at the hockey game last night.  All that matters is that the group of photos is meaningful to you.

There are services out there that pretend to do this. Pixable is one example.  Really though, all Pixable does it let you connect your various accounts where your photos and friends photos exist, and lets you view some fairly unintelligent sets of photos.  There is a wealth of metadata associated with photos these days.  A service could easily see that I tagged John in a photo at lunch time on Saturday.  John also posted a photo at lunch time on Facebook Saturday.  Basic logic tells me that I would like to see both of these photos as part of a logical group, “Lunch with John.”  Location is another excellent data point to help associated photos together.

Google+ Stories actually try to do a lot of these things, but with my own photos.  Why not extend this to my friends’ photos as well?

The next untapped innovation in helping me enjoy the photos of my life more, is unifying the experience of viewing the logical groups of photos that are important to me, regardless of where those photos are stored.  With mixed quality, developers APIs exist, the data is improving, and the time is ripe for someone to solve this problem.

Never Forget The Last Time You Were Here

Just last week Facebook quietly rolled out a new feature showing photos of a person and their significant other on their anniversary.   It is great to see Facebook finally start to leverage the vast amounts of data about people to help them enjoy their photos more.  Around the same time I started seeing a new experience on my iPhone after posting a photo.  First it was public photos at the same location I just posted a photo at.  Then yesterday I posted a photo while out to dinner and I was shown a photo from the last time all the people I was at dinner with (which I tagged in my photo post) were tagged in a post.  I was also shown the last time I checked in at the restaurant and who I was with.

Previous posts with people or location

 

This is a great way to help you spend a small amount of time to remember the past.  Facebook is barely even scratching the surface of what could be done to combine all they know about you and your friends to surface interesting set of photos at times you are likely to enjoy seeing them.  Another example of what cuold be done is your friend’s birthday. Instead of an advertisement to send them a gift, I would much prefer to see photos of me and my friend.  Sepia is a great service for that.  I get a collage of photos of me and my friend on their birthday that I can then share with them if I want.

Collage generated by Sepia for a friend's birthday

Collage generated by Sepia for a friend’s birthday

 

Amazon Cloud Drive – The 21st century’s version of photos in a shoebox you never open

Today Amazon made its announcement about the anticipated Amazon Fire Phone.  One of the top features being touted is unlimited storage for your photos.  That may sound great, but will you really be happy with your overall photo experience using Amazon?  I’d bet big that the answer is no.  Easy backup and lots of cheap/free space is only a small fraction of what you need to enjoy your photos.  How do you ultimately use the photos you take?  I know a lot sit on your phone, but you also share many of them through a wide variety of services (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, etc.)

I recently wrote about all the things I think you should consider when deciding where to store your photos online.  When I evaluate Amazon against the various criteria, the only thing it has going for it is cheap storage, free.  It isn’t even made clear if your full resolution photos will be stored in Amazon Cloud Drive or if it will be a low resolution version.  I’d be shocked if they weren’t full resolution, that would be a real sting to the cleanliness of their advertisement that it is unlimited storage for all your photos. That said, Google’s is unlimited free for low resolution and you have to pay for higher resolution photo storage.

Once your photos are stored in Amazon Cloud Drive, your experience is only as good as Amazon makes it.  Since Amazon makes $0 off of storing your photos, guess how much they are going to invest in making the experience awesome!?  Not a lot I bet.

Amazon’s web site and iOS app for viewing photos in your Cloud Drive is pretty minimalistic.  There is basic sorting by date, and thats about it.  No photo editing, no albums, no tagging, no searching, no sharing, and no developer APIs.  You might as well put your photos on a thumb drive and toss it in the closet with your 3×5 printed photos from the last century.

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Desktop Web Experience

Desktop Web Experience

The bottom line is, don’t let Amazon suck you into their phone because of unlimited photo storage.  Don’t even let it be a factor in your decision process.  I’m not saying don’t buy the Amazon Fire phone, I am sure it has other redeeming qualities, just don’t buy it for the storage space.  Storage space, while not free in most places, is very inexpensive.   It is becoming a commodity very quickly.  If you take enough photos that you care about free space, you probably care a lot about your entire photo experience.  Look at the big picture when choosing a phone, not just storage space.  In my experience with Amazon, they will invest heavily in the experiences that result in purchases of products on Amazon.  Photos is not one of them, though I can think of many ways it could be.  Apple, Google, dozens of other smaller companies, and yes, Microsoft care a lot more about photos than Amazon as demonstrated by the products they build.  The Amazon Fire phone is a full cost phone on par with iPhones and other high end phones.  I guarantee you it is very poor at many of the experiences you put a high value on.  Do your homework before you buy.