What Comes After Flickr? The Future of Photos in the Cloud

8/26/11Follow @wroush

It’s unclear how much damage Hurricane Irene will deal out as it travels up the Eastern Seaboard this weekend, but in the British Virgin Islands, it’s already caused one notable loss. Lightning from the storm sparked a fire that destroyed the home of Sir Richard Branson, who lost thousands of irreplaceable photographs in the blaze.

That’s the strongest case I can think of for storing all of your photos in the cloud. (It sounds like Branson’s photos were prints, but he probably could have afforded to get them scanned.) There are other big reasons too—once a photo is online, it’s obviously much easier to order prints or share it with friends or family. But the cloud’s power as a giant backup drive is probably its best selling point. After all, photos are the next best thing to memories, and if you lose your memories, you lose a part of yourself.

The question, these days, is which cloud photo service to use. I’ve been a Flickr member virtually since the service’s founding in 2004, when it was still owned by Vancouver, BC-based Ludicorp. I have nearly 13,000 photos and videos stored there, and they’ve racked up some 168,000 page views over the years. But I’m very concerned about Flickr’s future within Yahoo. Its founders Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake are long gone, longtime product head Matthew Rothenberg (a veteran of the Butterfield days) departed in March, and it doesn’t appear that the 46-member Flickr team is being given much room to innovate these days.

Flickr did roll out a nice redesign last summer, but such updates seem to take years, while features that are in dire need of improvement, such as the apps that let you upload photos from your Mac or Windows machine, go completely neglected. Flickr has been outmatched by Facebook when it comes to social photo sharing; it hasn’t put out an iPad app; and it completely missed the boom in photo sharing on camera phones, leaving it to startups like Path, Instagram, PicPlz, and Color. (One former Flickr architect wrote on Quora that Yahoo wasted years in the early iPhone days on internal debates over the implications of the mobile revolution for photo sharing.)

I’m not saying that Flickr is dead or even dying—it’s just not clear that Yahoo understands or values the service anymore. In a December 2010 layoff notice explaining that Yahoo was “cutting investment in underperforming and non-core products so we can focus on our strengths,” Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz pointed to e-mail, the Yahoo homepage, search, mobile, advertising, and content as strengths, but she didn’t mention photos.

You might ask why I’m focusing on Flickr as the incumbent, when the biggest photo sharing service in the world, by far, is Facebook (it stores about 100 billion photos, compared to Flickr’s 6 billion). Well, here’s why: Facebook doesn’t actually care about photos. It only cares about the people who appear in them. If it were concerned about the images themselves, it would offer better tools for creating, curating, and viewing photo albums; instead, it’s poured most of its photo-related development efforts into tools for tagging the people who show up in photos. That’s key because tagged photos show up in the news feeds of the tagged individuals, which helps to keep the whole endless conversation that is Facebook rolling. The images themselves might as well be piled up in a giant shoebox, for all the effort the company puts into helping you organize or discover them.

So what’s left, if you’re looking for a serious cloud photo service beyond Flickr? As it happens, there are some very interesting new options. I want to touch on three of them today: Google+, Apple’s iCloud, and a brand-new service called Snapjoy. They each push in a different direction—you might call them Web-centric, device-centric, and cloud-centric, respectively. I have no idea which one will prove most popular. But at least we’re living in interesting times. It almost feels like 2004-2005 again, when Flickr itself was new.

Google+

Back in 2004, Google bought a Pasadena, CA, startup called Picasa and started giving away the desktop photo editing software it had developed. A couple of years later, in 2006, it bolted on Picasa Web Albums, which allowed Picasa users to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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