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 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 it’s close. From the website, you can select photos for upload from your hard drive. There’s also a Mac uploader app called Snapjoy Shoebox that will upload any photo or folder that you drag onto the Shoebox window. It can also suck up your entire iPhoto library at once, or all the photos on any SD card that you attach to your computer (it automatically screens out duplicates). Right now, uploading only works on a Mac or a PC, but in the future, says Ren, the startup will also have uploader software for smartphones and WiFi-capable cameras.

Since the main point of Snapjoy is to get your photos into the cloud, the startup doesn’t yet offer a lot of fancy ways to organize, view, or share them once they’re there. There’s a Snapjoy website where thumbnails of your photos are lined up by year, month, or day. You can page forward or backward through your albums, and you can choose to share an individual photos with one person at a time by entering their e-mail address. But that’s about it.

Ren says the startup will gradually add many of the conventional features to the site, such the ability to create curated groups of photos and share photos on Twitter or Facebook. But for now, the company is focused on storage. “We went and asked people, in the case of a fire, what is the most important thing you would want to save?’” Ren says. “The answer was almost always ‘My photos.’ If you lose your camera or your phone, you can replace that—but if you lose your photos, they’re gone forever.”

There are other Internet entrepreneurs with contrasting approaches to photo sharing. A Paris startup called Picuous, for example, is developing a kind of “Vimeo for photos” where the emphasis is on making it easy to embed photos in other websites. Meanwhile, a San Francisco startup called Singly, led by instant messaging pioneer Jeremie Miller, is building an ambitious open-source system called My Locker, which it says “pulls together all of my personal data—my tweets, my photos, my contacts and all my social relationships…and allows me to choose where, when and with whom I share copies.” If My Locker works, it could change the whole ecosystem of user-generated content, giving consumers far more control over their data—and reducing the ability of giants like Google and Facebook to use it as fertilizer for their advertising harvest.

Singly’s project could take a while, so don’t hold your breath. But if you’ve spent years sending photos to Flickr, as I have, it’s definitely a good time to start looking at the alternatives. You never know—all the new competition might prompt Flickr to try some experimenting of its own. But with Bartz seen more as a cost-cutter than an innovator, and with Yahoo’s stock price near a five-year low, I can’t help worrying about the service. And when you smell smoke, it’s a good idea to locate the nearest exit.

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.