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Flickr redesigns web and mobile apps to create a powerhouse in online photo storage

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A major renovation for the once-neglected photo-sharing service

When Marissa Mayer became Yahoo’s CEO in 2012, she was greeted with a viral internet campaign from one of the company’s most loved — and neglected — properties. "Dear Marissa Mayer," began the website created by entrepreneur Sean Bonner. "Please make Flickr awesome again!" The path-breaking photo-sharing site, which doubled as a forerunner for modern social networks, had fallen into disrepair. But within a few months, Mayer responded with a redesigned mobile app, some powerful new editing features, and a truly generous offer: a full terabyte of free storage.

The moves succeeded in introducing Flickr to a new generation of users. From late 2010 to today, the service has grown from 5 billion photos to 11 billion photos. But along the way, Flickr came to feel neglected again. During a review of online photo storage services this month, I could find very few reasons to get excited. The site seemed caught between identities. Was it an online portfolio? An Instagram clone? Or something else?

Flickr is taking a big step forward

It turns out that Flickr was quietly rethinking how the service should work in 2015. When Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake launched the service in 2004, the era of cellphone photography was only just beginning. This year, we’re expected to upload a collective 900 billion photos onto the internet, and only a tiny fraction of them will be shared on the open web. There’s still a market for an online portfolio of your best work, which Flickr still offers. But the real opportunity is in helping people manage and browse their smartphone photos — and it’s there that Flickr is taking a big step forward.

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Today Flickr 4.0 is rolling out across the webiOSAndroid, PC, and Mac. A new tool called Uploadr, available for Mac and Windows, looks for photos on your hard drive and uploads them to a private Flickr album in the background. On Flickr.com, a new feature called Camera Roll organizes them into a reverse-chronological timeline. The Flickr mobile apps for iPhone and Android have been rewritten nearly from scratch, emphasizing your own photos over the ones taken by people you follow. And a powerful new search engine cuts through Flickr’s billions of photos with impressive smarts, letting you quickly filter them by keyword, size, shape, quality, and color among other tricks.

Taken together, it’s the most significant update to Flickr since before Mayer became CEO. And thanks to its generous free storage option, it’s something that everyone in the market for photo storage will want to consider.

Uploadr monitors your hard drive for new photos

To take advantage of the new Flickr, users will likely want to download Uploadr, which pulls photos from your hard drive and makes a private album. It’s not a new idea — Dropbox and iCloud Photo Library perform a similar trick — but Flickr offers vastly more storage than either of those options.

You’ll browse your newly uploaded features in Camera Roll, which Flickr is positioning as the new front door to the service. Your photos are laid out in a timeline with the newest photos at the top, and you can scroll through them with your mouse or by using a scrubber tool in the left-hand rail. (This feature borrows heavily from the look and feel of Carousel, Dropbox’s struggling photo app.) A lock icon appears on all your photos to assure you that they’re private, though you can make them public with a click.

The Camera Roll offers a slew of helpful features. You can click and drag to highlight a bunch of photos; from there, you can batch-edit their metadata or create a one-off album link for easy sharing with friends. Or you can download them in a zip file at their original resolution.

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Flickr calls the Camera Roll’s other big feature "Magic View," and if you’ve uploaded lots of photos, it’s a blast to browse through. Using Yahoo’s image-recognition technology, Flickr will generate dynamic albums for you across 60 categories including people, animals, landscapes, panoramas, and architecture. "Gone are the days of having to create albums," says Aditya Kashyap, the product lead for Camera Roll. "We’re doing the hard work for you."

Magic View generates dynamic albums

Image-recognition technology also plays a central role in Flickr’s revamped search engine, the most powerful of its kind. Up until now, Flickr saw a search like "golden gate bridge" and returned photos of gold, gates, and bridges. It’s now smart enough to look for photos of the object. And once it returns results of the bridge, you can apply a variety of filters to your search to find just what you’re looking for. Given the sheer volume of public photos on Flickr, results are often great, even when you’re looking for something unusual: a red-hued photo of a castle, say, or a black-and-white sunset. The new Flickr is especially useful for personal photo storage, but it’s also great for browsing. The new search engine is the reason why.

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All of these changes carry over into the mobile app, which has finally stopped feeling like a weak carbon copy of Instagram. In the old version, the default tab was the feed of photos taken by people you follow, just like Instagram’s. Now the default tab is your own photos, and the difference is subtle but meaningful. You can still find the feed, and you’ll still get notifications when someone likes your photo. And the auto-upload features for iOS and Android ensure that your photos make it to the cloud without you thinking about it too much.

What's impressive is what it's doing for free

The app still bears the burden of being a photo archive and social network simultaneously, and the result can feel awkward. But the new version goes a long way in unifying the web and mobile versions of Flickr into something you can understand at a glance.

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Reviewing cloud photo services over the past few months, my big complaint has been stagnation. Photo storage has been a money loser for most companies that have tried it, and while internet giants have released some good-enough options, few services are truly great. And aside from its search feature, there’s nothing particularly unique about what Flickr is doing here.

What’s impressive is what it’s doing for free: backing up a terabyte of photos from your main computer and your mobile devices, then making them easily searchable in the cloud. The rest of Flickr is still there: you can still follow great photographers, browse beautiful photos, and showcase your own. But among the solutions for backing up your photos online, Flickr has moved from the back of the pack to the front.