As of June 1st, Google Photos has formally ended its unlimited—albeit slightly resized and compressed—photo storage, nudging users towards one of their paid storage subscription plans. It’s a classic rent-seeking business move, after spending years subsidizing photo storage costs in a race to the bottom and extinguishing the vast majority of other paid photos services. It’ll likely work, too, at least for me; I had settled on Google Photos a while ago, and despite their second-class-citizen status on Apple hardware, it still integrates nicely with Android phones and Google’s smart home and streaming devices1.
This shift in photos strategy, though, also highlights its level of maturity as a product area. While there’s been some advancements on the management software side of things—AI-enhanced facial recognition comes to mind—most of the advancements in photos have been tied to hardware, specifically new phones with better cameras coupled with algorithms to compute enhanced picture quality. That connection with phones and their rapid iteration probably explains why the only major photos players left are Apple and Google; native integration at the operating system level has proven to be a powerful driver of usage, and of course defaults matter2.
I guess it’s obvious now in retrospect, but storage is the perfect paid service to pair with photos. Of all the types of personal media, photos have a number of unique properties that drive ever-expanding storage needs:
- Photos are deeply personal, sentimental and valuable, and that value remains over time
- They’re extremely easy to make in the era of smartphone cameras
- Quality has gone up significantly in the past decade, and each step-up in picture quality tends to require more storage space to store the added pixels
The use case feels tailor-made for cloud storage and backup. Indeed, Dropbox had tried to back into photos via its Carousel app and take advantage of their extensive investments in running their own data centers, but was quickly outcompeted by free alternatives at the time. I suppose Amazon still has their photos storage app that comes with Prime; given how limited it is, I’m not sure it’s even preferable to slugging around a bunch of hard drives.
Assuming that we’ll continue to see minor camera improvements and photos management feature parity, where do we go from here?
One possibility is to expand beyond still 2D pictures. Videos have improved alongside photos on phones in quality, but they don’t have quite the same ease of management and viewing + editing that photos apps have enabled. I’ve recently backed a Kickstarter called Looking Glass, a hologram display that works reasonably well with the 3-dimensional information generated from phone depth sensors. Social networks and sharing adds an orthogonal use case to most media types; Instagram had a virtual monopoly on sharing photos, until TikTok came along and innovated around short video clips.
Chances are we’ll eventually have to pay for it, though.