The Unique Properties of Photos

Another month, another great photos service.

Google Photos is the latest service to one-up its competition, and there’s a lot to like about it: both the effectively unlimited storage1 and the machine-intelligent search play to Google’s core strengths and are features that no one else can really match. If nothing else, I’m thinking of using it to store yet another copy of my pictures in the cloud to hedge against service outages and product deprecations.

There are a few properties of photos as a medium that make it unique from most other documents and media:

  • Photos cannot be centralized. The music and video services offered by Amazon, Netflix or Pandora largely don’t apply as photos are created and consumed by individuals, and their most valuable photos are the ones taken by themselves and the people around them.
  • JPEG is the standard format. The universal format for photos has narrowed to JPEG since the 90s and it has served extremely well even with two decades worth of computing advancements. While plenty of proprietary RAW image formats exist for advanced photography, everything converts nicely to JPEG, and the format will continue to be supported for the foreseeable future.
  • The value of photos do not deteriorate with time. Compared to other documents, photos can capture a moment in time that is itself timeless; think baby pictures or shots of famous events. That means that photo collections only monotonically increase, and the tools to manage photos need to work with ever-larger libraries.
  • Photos are accessed everywhere. Anything with a screen is a candidate for displaying photos, in addition to the good ol’ analog physical print. The aforementioned standardization and value stabilization helps make this possible and now even expected.

Some of these reasons are also why photos are such a tough business to crack; the startup deadpool is littered with remains of companies, founded by photography enthusiasts, who could not develop a viable business model2. It’s coming down to the major tech giants and cheap cloud storage, but that storage only comes at massive scale, and likely subsidized by other products instead of being sustainable as a standalone offering.

  1. The usual caveat here is that it only allows unlimited compressed photos, so it’s not a lossless backup solution. That said, for non-professional photography, it’s becoming less and less important to keep originals other than as a matter of philosophy.

  2. It makes me concerned about smaller companies like Lyve, which I still try to use to sync photos across devices.

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