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

8/26/11Follow @wroush

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upload up to 250 megabytes’ worth of photos to galleries stored on Google’s servers. And that’s where Google’s photo sharing effort stood for the next five years—the only thing that really changed was that Google increased the free upload limit to 1 gigabyte. I was never very interested, because the Picasa experience didn’t seem to outshine Flickr in any important way.

But lately, photographer-bloggers like Thomas Hawk and Trey Ratcliff have been all aflutter about Google and Picasa. That’s because Google is using Picasa Web Albums as the photo-organizing layer underneath Google+, its astonishingly fast-growing social networking service. If you click on the photo tab of someone’s Google+ profile, what you see is their Picasa Web albums—but that isn’t what’s getting photographers so excited. What they’re flipping out over is the way Google presents the photos, which couldn’t form a stronger contrast with Facebook’s style. The photo thumbnails in Google+ news streams are much larger than Facebook’s; photo albums are organized on a big, interactive wall, evidently using lots of Javascript magic; and the photos themselves open in an attractive lightbox with plenty of room for tags and comments from visitors.

Hawk and Ratcliff claim that the photos they upload to Google+ attract a lot more comments, sharing, and likes (oops, I mean +1s) than photos they put on Facebook or Flickr. That could be just because Google+ is the flavor of the month. Or it could be that Google has figured out how to combine Flickr’s traditional respect for the images themselves with Facebook’s genius for social sharing. Whatever the case, Google+ is where you’ll find a lot of the cool kids right now.

iCloud

Apple, befitting its focus on hardware and applications rather than the Web, has come up with a device-centric answer to the problem of managing images. The next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 5, will link up with a cloud-based storage and communications system that Apple is calling iCloud. When you take a photo on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, iOS 5 will automatically and wirelessly send it to iCloud, which will in turn send a copy to any other iOS devices you may own. Those photos will show up in a new “Photo Stream” album containing the last 1,000 photos you’ve shared. You can store any of the Photo Stream pictures permanently on any your devices by saving them to the device’s camera roll.

At the same time, iCloud sends a copy of each photo to your Mac or Windows PC, which Apple envisions as the home of your master photo library. Each image also stays on iCloud itself for 30 days, which is supposed to be enough time to get all your devices wirelessly synced up.

That 30-day limit means that technically, iCloud isn’t a photo storage service—it’s really just a service for automatically duplicating photos across all your devices. I think Apple’s view is that the real battle in photo management—the act that determines whether you will ever edit, share, or back up an image—is simply getting it off of the device you used to take it. If you’re truly worried about losing your photo library, in this view, then you should probably be backing up your computer using Time Machine or a cloud service like Mozy or Carbonite. But if you own a whole family of Apple devices, you’ll end up with so many copies of your photos that you might not need to.

Snapjoy

It’s not just giants like Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, and Google who want to help you with your photos. After a long dry spell, there’s now a lot of photo-sharing innovation happening at the startup level. A case in point: Snapjoy, a Silicon Valley startup that just emerged from the Y Combinator startup accelerator program. The startup is tapping S3, Amazon’s rental storage system, to provide a service that’s beautiful in its simplicity: permanent cloud storage of all of your photos. “We want to move all of it into the cloud, because that’s where it should be,” says co-founder JP Ren.

Snapjoy’s first priority was to “make it ridiculously easy to upload your pictures,” Ren says. The process isn’t quite as automatic as it will be with iCloud, but … Next Page »

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

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