Google is tired of Apple getting all the glory when it comes to photo sharing. Today, the company introduced a feature in its Google Photos app that’s designed to compete with Apple’s popular iCloud Photo Sharing. It's available for iOS, Android and the web. That cross-platform support is a big differentiator for Google, since Apple’s version is still exclusive to iOS and OS X. This matters if you’re trying to collaborate with all of your friends and family — not just your friends with iPhones and Macs.
Google’s shared albums are off to a decent start, but they seem designed for sharing one-time events rather than ongoing collections of memories.
I tested them for the past week on iOS and Android and found a few delightful features that you can’t find in Apple’s shared albums. For example, videos and animated photos will appear in your album as if the subjects are moving, an old feature carried over from Google Photos that will still make people smile. (Note: Oddly, this only works in the iOS version, but Google says this is eventually coming to Android.) Shared album images can be rearranged by the album owner, while Apple’s can’t be moved after they're added. Album collaboration starts not by inviting others via email or phone number, like Apple’s, but by sending a simple link using whatever method you prefer. And at the top of the album, small, circular icons of each person show you who has access to it.
But despite all their cross-platform goodness, Google’s shared albums are still missing key features. Amazingly enough, you can’t caption, comment on, or like things that you share or see, and this sucks the emotion from albums, leaving you with an unsatisfying feeling. Google also sorts your album’s photos in chronological order of when they were taken — not when they were added — and this can leave you confused about where to find newly added photos. And lock screen notifications were often mixed up, saying that a photo, rather than a video, was added or that eight, rather than four, photos were added to an album. (This last issue may have been a result of testing a pre-release version of shared albums, but it’s worth mentioning in case the problem persists.)
Google's shared albums are still missing key features
With the updated version of the Google Photos app, Google’s shared albums can be accessed via the left-side menu in the app, just below Assistant, Photos, and Collections. To create a new shared album, click the "+" sign in the top right. Tap on the photos or videos you want to share, name your album, and hit Share. You can send people a link to join that album and, in settings, you decide whether or not those people can add their own content to the album. (Contributors need a Google account, but anyone with the link can view the album and download photos, even from a mobile browser.)
Back in September, Google said that it was working on Shared Albums when it announced a bunch of other updates to Google Photos. But the company has a challenging hill to climb if it wants to replace Apple in this area — especially since iOS users have had shared albums, originally called shared photo streams, since September 2012. (If you’re curious, an Apple spokesperson told me that the company has no plans in the foreseeable future to take its shared albums to other operating systems, like Android.)
Google will have to convince people to trust it with private images
But even if you put aside the familiarity factor, Google has to convince people to trust it for privately sharing photos and videos — no small feat after its Google+ social network confused people about what was shared privately or publicly. Google’s product lead for Photos, Dave Lieb, says that shared albums are completely private unless the user explicitly shares, and that this is clearly a private photo management service, not a social network.
To vie for your attention on iOS, it would help if Google’s app intelligently integrated into the operating system, using things like richer notifications. And Google’s version of shared photos has to be easy enough for everyone to use — including great-grandparents who are itching to see new shared photos of their kids’ kids’ kids.
Soon after sending my first album to two people, I heard back — not within the shared album, itself, but in a text message. They wanted to tell me that they liked the photos and videos I shared, but had to tell me in somewhere other than the album, which felt disjointed. After a few days, we stopped telling each other what we thought of one another’s photos, and the albums started feeling lonely.
Lieb says that comments and likes will be added to shared albums, but in a staged, thoughtful approach. He said he prefers to figure out when and where to allow comments and likes, for example, creating a space where comments are left on the entire album, rather than on each photo. This would be fine if the album was created around an event, like "Rebecca’s Wedding," but not for long-term albums like, "Liam is Two."
The chronological order of photos and videos is another thing that would be better suited to albums built around events. Lieb says future iterations of shared albums will improve on this. They might label an album's new photos more clearly or let people adjust settings to switch the order of photos from when-taken to when-added.
Shared albums plus unlimited backups make Google Photos really compelling, especially on Android
On the iPhone or iPad, Google is limited by what it’s allowed to do for certain features. Lock screen notifications for Google’s shared albums are text-only because Apple’s ecosystem still only lets Apple’s apps use the tiny thumbnail that appears beside a notification. Thumbnail notifications are possible in Android, and Lieb says they will be coming to the Android version of Google Photos in the future.
Google Photos was already strong on iOS and Android, especially for its unlimited backup feature, but the addition of shared albums gives this app an extra boost that may entice more people to use it. Apple users aren’t likely to switch to it any time soon, but if shared albums fixes its problems, it could be a big win for Android and people who use both platforms.
Update, 11:48AM, December 10th: Corrected title of Google's product lead for Photos.
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