• How Google solved our photo backup nightmare

Google+'s failure led to the best photo product on earth

A year ago, when Vic Gundotra left Google, the social network he was building there was thrown into uncertainty. Reports trickling out of the company suggested Gundotra 's Google+ was slowly being dismantled. The most intriguing news concerned its photos team, which had relocated to a different building and begun work on a new project related to photos. Google had built a powerful tool for storing and organizing pictures, but had buried it inside a neglected social network. Reports suggested that now, the product would stand on its own.

Those reports were correct. At Google I/O, the world got its first glimpse of Photos, the company’s new solution for managing the billions of images we collectively create every year. It includes lightweight desktop software that will scour your Mac or PC for photos and videos new and old, uploading them to a private album in the cloud. It uses impressive machine learning to understand what’s in a photo, turning each picture into a series of keywords that are as searchable as Gmail. And it stores an unlimited number of files, at a resolution up to 16 megapixels or 1080p video, for free — making Google Photos the most generous photo storage option on the market.

Google Photos, which is now available on the web, Android, and iOS, illustrates the falling price of storage and the growing power of Google data science. But it also illustrates a lesson Google learned building Google+. "A social network is not where you want to organize and store all of your private and personal collections of photos and videos," says Anil Sabharwal, who leads the Photos team. "We needed a solution that worked for the photos you want to share, as well as the ones that you don’t."

Of course, Google+ was built to be that solution, too. When it was introduced in 2012, Gundotra touted its unique privacy model, which asked users to group everyone they knew into "circles" of friends, family, co-workers, and so on. But few users could remember which people they had placed on which list, or bothered to update their lists as people moved in and out of their lives. Amid that confusion, Google found that people were reluctant to store their photos on its servers. "We needed to go back to the first principles," Sabharwal says. "We need to go back and start over. "

"We needed to go back to the first principles. We need to go back and start over. "

In the wake of Gundotra’s departure, the Photos team began to rethink its approach. If they were going to ask people to store all of their pictures with Google, they would have to build a new foundation of trust. That meant "graduating" the service from Google+, and building a new home for it inside stand-alone apps and at photos.google.com. And it meant building a service that did as much to help you enjoy your old photos as it did to store them. The hope is that the fresh start will give people more confidence that their photos will be safe, and private, with Google.

Much of the work behind Google Photo fell to David Lieb, who joined the company in 2013 when it bought his popular contact-sharing app, Bump. "When you’ve got all your photos in one view — I’ve got literally 100,000 photos in one view here — we needed to reinvent the ways you would navigate and look at those photos." It’s two weeks before I/O, and we’re sitting in a building on Google’s Mountain View campus. Lieb is demonstrating Photos on a new Android device, which lets him view his entire photo archive. By dragging his thumb along the archive’s right side, he can quickly scroll through several years of photos. Or he can zoom in and out of his collection by pinching — going from a month-by-month overview to more immersive grids of five or six photos at a time.

But if you have 100,000 photos — or even 10,000 photos, as I do — there’s only so much value in a bird’s-eye view. Google recognized that problem, and set out to develop a sorting system that reflects how people identify and organize photo collections in their own minds. "We went around and did surveys with people and said, describe to me your last 10 photos just in words," Lieb says. "We’d close our eyes and listen." It turns out most people describe photos in four categories: who’s in it, where it was taken, what’s in it, and what type of image it is: a video, a panorama, and so on.

Tap Google’s familiar magnifying glass icon inside Photos, then, and that’s what you’ll see: there are the faces that appear most often in your photos, ranked by frequency. There are places where you’ve shot the bulk of your pictures and videos. There’s a personalized list of things you like to photograph — concerts, food, and dogs, in my case. And, finally, there’s access to your videos and to what Google calls "creations" — algorithmically generated animations, collages, photo albums, and video montages.

Photo Lead

Of these features, face detection is the one that truly astounded me. (Apple’s Photos product offers face detection, too, but it requires much more set-up and hand-holding.) I’d never labeled a single photo in my collection, and yet Google had quickly assembled every photo I’d ever taken of my mom, dad, brother, and nephew, keeping them all straight even as they aged and changed. (It was particularly impressive in tracking my nephew as he transforms from an adorably chubby blob into a lean-and-mean three-year-old.) Google’s face detection is so powerful that I’m glad you have the option to disable it. It created an amazingly comprehensive photo album of my ex-boyfriend, and instantly reliving every holiday and road trip together just by tapping his face overwhelmed me. It’s magic, yes, but it can catch you off guard. (And it’s not perfect: a colleague who tried the service discovered that Google thought his wife was at least four different people.)

Google has built some clever tools for sharing photos as well — drag to select a few shots, and with a couple clicks, you can create a web album for your friends to see. If your friends have Google accounts, they can save the pictures to their own Photos account with a single click. For people who want to organize, say, all the photos friends took at their weddings, this feature is going to be a godsend.

The result of Google’s efforts is a photo management solution that, in my two weeks of testing, has a strong claim to be the best in its class. Although we’re taking more photos each year, we’re less precious with them than we’ve ever been, and resistant to thinking about what to actually do with our troves of snapshots. So, a successful photo storage service must have two key features: a set-it-and-forget-it system that automatically uploads and protects your photos and videos the moment you take them, and increasingly sophisticated methods to help you enjoy them in the years to come. And it helps if that service is free.

Yahoo made enormous strides this year when it released a new version of Flickr, with its own auto-upload software for desktop, Android, and iOS. And its machine-learning features for organizing photos are sometimes superior to Google’s — I used it to find and delete old screenshots, for example, where a search for "screenshots" in Google Photos returns strange false positives. (Say what you will about this photo of my friend Joe smoking a cigar, but he’s no mere screenshot.) Google’s machine learning is still best at what I think of as the category level — search for "breakfast" and you’ll get a great selection of your breakfast photos; search for "waffles," though, and you’ll get … a great selection of your breakfast photos.

Google Photo 3

Yahoo’s offer of 1 terabyte of free Flickr storage is more than enough for most users to use comfortably for years. But increasingly, I can’t help but notice that Flickr suffers from the same problem Google+ did — it wants to be a photo archive and a social network simultaneously, and the results are sometimes awkward. (Flickr has to place a padlock icon on every photo you upload just to remind you that it’s private.)

Ultimately, both services are quite good — and miles ahead of the options we had even a few months ago. Nearly overnight, competitors like Amazon Prime Photos, OneDrive, and Dropbox’s Carousel look like also-rans. If you’ve ever run out of space on your phone because you took too many photos, you owe it to yourself to try a service like Google Photos or Flickr. (When you’re low on storage, the "Assistant" tab inside Google Photos’ mobile app offers to delete the pictures and videos on your phone, since they’ve all been backed up to the cloud.)

Nearly overnight, competitors like Amazon Prime Photos, OneDrive, and Dropbox’s Carousel look like also-rans

Surveying cloud photo solutions earlier this year, I complained that none of the major players seemed to be trying all that hard. It’s tough to blame them: photo storage is a money-loser for most companies, Google included. (Unlike Flickr, Google Photos won’t have ads.) Some will look at Google Photos and point out where it has borrowed features from its competitors. But in my experience, it’s the easiest to use, and unless you want byte-for-byte reproductions of your DSLR photos, it’s free.

Sabharwal noted that the tech world had made enormous progress in building cars that drive themselves and drones that deliver packages. "But for me to be able to save, organize, and share a group of photos with a small group of friends — it’s the problem of our time that remains unsolved," he said. With Google Photos, the company has taken a welcome step toward solving it.

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