State of Photo Sharing 2014

Last week, Dropbox announced that they had acquired Loom and would be integrating their functionality in the future. I’m a paying customer of both Loom and Dropbox, so in one sense I am happy the Loom folks didn’t sell out to a company I don’t like, I can’t help but be frustrated that another photography startup I was giving money to shut down.

The last one I gave money to was Everpix who was unable to be acquired and instead shut down the service entirely when they were unable to pay their Amazon storage bill. Like Loom, I was a paid subscriber to Everpix because I liked what they promised: a full backup of my photographs in the cloud that I could easily organize and share across multiple devices.

This is 2014. This doesn’t seem like a a problem that still needs solving, yet we still don’t have a de-facto platform for private and semi-private photography sharing and backup.

When I was at Hipstamatic back in 2012, this was something we discussed then. At that time, Facebook was still marching to the “everything should be public” drum, which I agree with on some levels, but not photography. There are legitimate use cases where you want to just share photos with your spouse, extended family, or drinking buddies. Nothing ever came of those discussions at Hispta. Oggl is far more Instagram than it is Everpix.

A Feature, Not A Product

Steve Jobs once met with Dropbox’s Drew Houston to talk about an acquisition. In that interview, Jobs famously said Dropbox was a feature, not a product as Houston decided to remain an independent company. At the time, I didn’t agree with Jobs, but as I’ve watched the landscape unfold the past few years, I think he was right.

When you look at the graveyard of failed photo startups, you start to realize that their economy is much like that of an app developers: free. Everpix failed to convert enough users from their free plan to paid, which forced them out of business. Loom, I’m guessing was facing a similar fate. Even though I was paying for both services, I was likely an outlier.

When people purchase an iOS or Android device, they expect that their data is going to be backed up for free as part of that purchase. That includes not only their apps, calendars and contacts, but also their photos. Google gets this right by giving away a ton of storage. Apple is stuck in the stone age with their measely 5GB offering that is hardly enough to back up a single iOS device.

When you’re competing against a platform vendor who gives away the house for free, it’s hard to gain that critical mass that is necessary to keep yourself afloat.

There are three major vendors that I see having viable solutions for cloud backup and sharing right now. Only one of those is an independent startup.

Apple’s Photo Streams

When I released Photos+, I underestimated that appeal of Photo Streams. I have never once used them successfully, and assumed no one else did as well. Since the APIs for working with them in third-party apps was pretty much nonexistent, I decided not to hide them. It turns out, they are used and I received a lot of email asking for the functionality.

Photo Streams allow you share photos with other iOS users in a shared album setting. One person will create a Photo Stream and invite their friends to it. Optionally, friends can then also import images into the shared photo stream so that everyone has the same catalog of photos to work from for a specific event.

Confusingly, Photo Streams also refers to the backup service that Apple offers for your photos. When enabled, Apple backs up your last 1000 photos over the last 30 days to iCloud so they appear on all your iDevices.

The problem with the backup service is that Apple has it entirely backwards. I don’t need my most recent photos uploaded to the cloud. I already have them on my device. I want my oldest photos in the cloud and instantly accessible by the tap of a button, while my most recent onces are already locally cached and easily shareable.

Google+ Cloud Backup

Google semi-secretly offers a service called Google+ Cloud Backup. I say semi-secretly, because right now you have to download Google’s Picassa to get the Mac app for Cloud Backup and since it’s not 2005 anymore I doubt many people even remember Picassa was once a thing.

Google+ Cloud Backup’s name is a bit of a misnomer because it truly doesn’t have that much to do with Google+. Sure, you can share your photos to Google+ if you really want to, but it’s inherently private by default. When you run their Mac app it will traverse your hard drive for all your digital images (RAW too!) and start uploading them to Google’s servers so they’ll be safely backed up.

You can then go to photos.google.com and organize, tag, edit, and share your photos. It’s a pretty decent “iPhoto in the Cloud” service and given Google’s focus on photography the past year, I’m betting its going to be even better in the future.

And related to Loom is Dropbox’s new Carousel app for iOS and Android that takes all the photos you have been backing up to your Dropbox account and organizes them in an nicely done app. One of the key features of the product is the ability to send and share photos with other Carousel users.

For instance, if you and I were out one night with friends and snapping photos, I could send you the photos I snapped through Carousel and they would appear in your copy of the app the next time you launched it.

This is almost exactly what I want, yet not a single person has sent me a photo in Carousel yet. Why?

Email

What is the easiest way to share a photo or photos with anyone in your family that is online? Email. Everyone has an email account. Every checks their email account. It doesn’t matter whether they are on a Mac, PC, iOS, Android or Blackberry. Email works.

Every solution I listed above had some sort of platform-specific tradeoff. Email, on the other hand, is a universal solution.

Is is the perfect solution? Not by a longshot. I want to strangle anyone that sends me several megabytes worth of attachments. Some mail servers will even outright reject such a thing. You can’t deny however that it is still right now the most viable solution for semi-private photo sharing no matter what silicon valley tries.

Technology Isn’t The Problem, But Maybe It Is?

We have the technology for any sort of photo sharing service we can imagine at this point. Thanks to nearly ubiqutious connections in the western world, the cloud, and our mobile devices we can do pretty much anything we ever imagined.

What we can’t do, however, is get a single one of these sharing products to reach critical mass.

History tends to repeat itself, especially in technology. In the early days of computing, every platform was competing at a fast and furious pace and not really working about standard compatibility. You would end up with files that were created on a Mac, but unable to be read on a PC and vice versa.

Fast foward a decade later to when companies are competing to gain your digital download purchases. iTunes, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all used different proprietary DRM solutions to lock you in to their specific service and platform. Luckily, music has shifted away from DRM but it’s still an issue with movies and TV shows purchased digitally.

The most recent incarnation of this is the competing vendor-specific cloud storage providers. The big three phone manufacturers (Apple, Google, and Microsoft at a distant third) each offer their own specific online storage solutions and none of them are fully interoperable with the other. You can download a Google Drive app on iOS and Android, but not Windows Phone. Microsoft’s OneDrive is available on all-three platforms, but the quality of its app is pretty poor compared to the rest. Apple marches to the beat of their own drum so iCloud is only available to iOS devices. Most importantly, however, of these platforms directly integrate the third-party clients in the OS. Android is close with their new Storage Access Framework, but I’ve yet to see it integrated in any app I use on my KitKat devices.

Each different vendor is slinging their own solution for problems that are common amongst all mobile users, irregardless of platform. Photo Streams are great if your entire Framily is on iOS. Carousel is great if everyone is using Dropbox. Google+ Photos is great if you work at Google.

What photography sharing needs is a de facto standard that works across all platforms ubiqutiously just like email. Whether that’s a third-party app that takes over like Instagram did public sharing, or a protocol that is open and interoprable between different vendors remains to be seen. If I was putting chips on the table, I’d bet on a startup over a protocol.

Hedging My Bets

After uploading my entire library to Loom and Everpix only to see them be shut down, I’m hedging my bets now. I’m now duplicating my entire photo library between Google Photos and Dropbox. If you live near me and are on the same cable modem node, I apologize for your poor service these next few days.

If I had to choose only one of these services to go with, I’d likely choose Google because of their scope and size. As I said, photography backup and sharing is something that is now expected by users for free. Google seems to understand that and is giving away a generous plan to get started. My photo library spans nearly a decade, so I opted to pay them a whopping $2 a month for 100GB of storage (which is $9.99 a month for the equivalent plan on Dropbox).

Assuming neither Google, nor Dropbox go out of business in the foreseeable future, it seems like we have lasting solutions for the “iPhoto in the Cloud” problem. I’m still not convinced that Carousel or any other service will be capable of reaching such a critical mass that it becomes the default photo sharing experience.

My guess is that we’ll still be passing photos around via email if I write this post two years or four years from now.

Update: I’ve posted a follow-up

About Justin

Justin Williams is the Crew Chief of Second Gear. He writes about consumer technology, running a bootstrapped software business, and more from Denver, Colorado.

Follow @justin on Twitter or get new articles via @carpeaqua.