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.
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 here 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.