The truth about Google Photos

Secret Tell Surprise Shock

Google Photos is more than an exciting -- and hugely transforming -- new product. The app/cloud service is a metaphor for an escalating mobile business model that, with perhaps the exception of Facebook, no competitor has the capacity to match.

Users gain tremendous time-saving utility, such as the ability to meaningfully search using innocuous terms like "dog" or "Washington", all without the need to manually add metadata tags by way of applications like Photoshop. Meanwhile, Google gets access to quantifiable information, in the image and accompanying metadata, around which to sell advertising and related contextual content or services.


Means to an End

In 2005 -- that's right a decade ago -- I explained Google's business model in terms no one else used; then, at least. In a Microsoft Monitor analysis archived on my personal site: "Google no longer is just a search company, if it ever really was. Search is really a means to an end, and that end is the access to information..Google’s ambitions would appear to be much larger than search. Looks to me like the company wants to catalog and access all information, regardless of who creates it or where it is stored". The goal, of course: To monetize information. That's the end where search leads. But the explanation isn't that simple.

Context and informational utility define the three major computing eras. IBM led the first, established around mainframes, which provided large businesses greater utility to catalog and act upon information but within the context of the workplace. The PC made more information available to smaller businesses, educational and other institutions, and every-day consumers in broader contexts.

The contextual cloud computing era, which often is misidentified as post-PC, takes information from the desktop confines and puts it in your pocket -- or makes it available anytime, anywhere, and on anything in changeable contexts. For example, no longer is your role defined by location. You can go from parent to product manager without leaving the couch or rushing back to the office.

With respect to cost, mainframes sold for millions of dollars, which was prohibitive for the masses. PC hardware and software could be purchased for thousands, broadening informational utility around documents and spreadsheets to hundreds of millions of people. IBM profited from the first; Microsoft and partners from the second.

By contrast, Google's business model is one of the most disruptive ever conceived: Give away for free what competitors must charge for, while largely profiting from goods that someone else produces and which can be used without payment. Search is the means of getting that information, whether combed for free on the web or generated by people using products like Gmail, Maps, and -- surely you guessed -- Photos.

Mobile Me

That the service's centerpiece is a mobile app for either Android or iOS (yes, PC web browser works fine) is no coincidence. Google recognized long before most high-tech companies the importance of mobile. Several of my BetaNews analyses from 5 years ago explain where the company was headed, particularly with respect to mobile: "Google is a dangerous monopoly -- more than Microsoft ever was" and "Apple and Microsoft beware: Google will be an unstoppable force in mobility". They provide valuable context, if you have time to read. Briefly excerpting from the second post:

The company is rapidly pulling together numerous, seemingly disparate products and services around offering a mobile lifestyle. Google's major focus is no longer search. The company has clearly made mobility the top priority, extending from existing customers using search or other Google services. Google has a huge advantage over competitors, which customers pay for something. Google customers largely consume free services, around which Google makes money from other stuff, such as advertising and keyword search. So Google's customer-loss risks are less even as it disrupts competitors' businesses and snatches away their customers.

A half-decade later, there are good reasons why the European Union's Competition Commission investigates Google's mobile dominance, connected to search and other services. During yesterday's annual I/O developer conference, Google made some startling claims:

  • Number of Android users reaches 1 billion
  • Eight out of 10 smartphones sold last year used Android
  • In the year since last I/O, there have been 600 million new Android users
  • Four thousand Android devices are available from about 500 different carriers
  • Gmail now has 900 million users, and three-quarters access from mobile devices

Search and advertising are conjoined, and their relationship is tighter still around mobile devices. According to Juniper Research, global mobile advertising spending will reach $51 billion this year, more than doubling to $105 billion by 2019.

Mobile devices are much more personal than PCs, for numerous reasons, such as being constantly carried or being hubs for communications and accessing contextually-relevant information. In transitioning its business from web-based keyword and related advertising, Google should:

  • Provide users with fast, easy information access
  • Make easier sharing and communicating things that matter
  • Use mobile devices' personal character to gather valuable data about users

On the latter, if Google doesn't get the info, Facebook will. The social network collects terabytes of personal data every day that is advertising actionable. Other than Amazon, no Google cloud competitor collects more personal information than Facebook. People give it away in Likes, posted photos, status updates, and more.

No Rival

If Apple had released Google Photos, web writers would be gaga with praise. The service is potentially enormously disruptive to every other photo-sharer. If I wasn't committed to the "Flickr a Day" project on my personal site, I would cancel my subscription to the Yahoo service. Google Photos is exceptional, starting with the price. Users can store an unlimited number of photos, each up to 16MB in size, and maximum 1080p videos for free. Paying storage customers can remove these overly-generous restrictions.

Google Photos meets the criteria set by my eight Principles of Disruptive Design. Successful products must:

  1. Hide complexity
  2. Emphasize simplicity
  3. Make users feel happy
  4. Build on what is familiar
  5. Imbue human-like qualities
  6. Do what it’s supposed to really well
  7. Allow people to do something they wished they could do but couldn’t
  8. When displacing something else, offer significantly better user experience

The product hides complexity and emphasizes simplicity by, for example:

  • Automatically backup up photos
  • Providing remarkable search utility
  • Removing the need to manually tag pics
  • Auto-editing images and making manual adjustments easy

I sure felt happy rediscovering my years of backed-up mobile photos today. The service is fast and fluid in desktop browser or Android app (I don't have an iOS device for testing). Human? This thing is personal but familiar enough and functional. Search allows you to find what matters without tagging, and the experience sure beats Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo photo services. For free. Apple and Microsoft charge $240 and $84 per year, respectively, for 1TB storage. OneDrive also adds Office 365.

Google Gets

Circumspectly, let's finally identify what Photos means to Google: More information mining and search as a means to an end. The photo finding utility that the company provides to users also benefits its own information-gathering efforts and services that are provided to advertising and other contextual partners. Then there is the rich metadata the mobile phones or digital cameras collect, like location.

Think actionable advertising that is contextual. For example, the information giant detects from photos that you wear Adidas sneakers. Lookee! While shopping at the mall you receive a Google Now card on smartwatch or smartphone alerting to a sale on the brand at one of the stores. Now that the company has opened the platform to third parties, such a scenario is achievable.

Google could tie advertiser compensation to Android Pay rather than or in addition to clickable link. User receives contextual Now notice at mall, then she buys new Adidas sneaks using the mobile money app. Google connects the two events based on time from the alert and geographic location; the advertiser is appropriately compensated.

Consider another scenario. Teenage girl snaps photos of outfits she is trying on and sends them to friends. While in the throws of indecision, she receives a Google Now notice informing her that another retailer, and one who is a Big G advertiser, sells shirt and skirt for less. Or, if the store advertises online with Google, she is sent an instant-discount coupon that tips her to make the purchase.

Only Facebook has the utility to be so granular in the personal data collected than what Google can get from your online activities around Gmail, Maps, Search, and related services -- and more. But FB mines behaviorally-rich activities that Big G gets somewhat from its Plus social network but nowhere as many mainstream users.

Adding Photos to its other information-gathering services means more freely-given utility to users and advertising actionable data for partners. It's true photos that auto-backup are private. No one sees them unless you allow. But Google gets access to them -- otherwise they couldn't be automatically enhanced, organized, and primed for search. Everything that your personal pics reveal, either directly in the metadata or overtly by sophisticated algorithm, can be useful to Google. That's the price you pay for the benefits -- of which there are many.

Mobile is all about context. Context is in Google's corporate DNA as a natively cloud company that wraps advertising around search keywords. Photos is bold. Photos is brilliantly executed and builds from what I will call the Google+ field test. Consider all those inhabitants of the so-called, ah, ghost town as guinea pigs at worst, beta testers at best, bringing Photos to the masses.

Free undermines competitors. Context and utility satisfy users. Data collection makes money for Google and its partners. Your personal pics aren't just meaningful to you; they are, en masse, a hugely valuable commodity. That's the truth about Google Photos.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Sharpshutter

28 Responses to The truth about Google Photos

  1. Zé Horacio Phips says:

    Perefect article Joe. Simply perfect.

    (Ze Horacio, from Brazil)

  2. Jack Bnimble says:

    I am not a Google fan or a Joe Wilcox fan. I prefer Apple products. I fear Google's invasion in my life. (Privacy)

    All that said Google Photos is simply amazing in so many ways. I got the iOS app and the OS X uploading app. I use Chrome on the Mac to manage it.

    I dont have a lot of photo needs. I just want to get to my photo's on any device and easily organize them. Add in some light editing. Photo's to me are a way to visually remember the moments in my life.

    My hat is off to Google and Joe for writing a great article.

    Apple I like the Photos App. I like the iCloud Sync but there is NO WAY I am paying for storage. Thanks to the Google upload App on OS X, I can still use Photos locally and the app will sync them to the cloud.

  3. BoltmanLives says:

    I'm uploading my entire photo library as we speak. See Google actually owns their cloud like Microsoft. I put my music on Onedrive for ease of streaming. Now all my Photos as a second copy in the cloud permanently free with meta tag searching. I could do OneDrive however the unlimited may go away should I ever go away from Office 365 so Google is a better choice..Kudos Google I like what you did here.

    Apple does not have much if any cloud presence they are basiclly irrelevant from here on out.

    • Richard Saunders says:

      Apple has a strong SaaS presence, but it's mostly only used by people who actually own Apple devices. However they do not offer IaaS or PaaS services of any kind.

      • Mihaita Bamburic says:

        I concur. You have iDrive, iTunes Radio, iCloud (with everything it entails), and some other things I can't think of right now. But most of the goodies are only for Apple customers.

      • BoltmanLives says:

        Which is EXACTLY why Apple is more and more irrelevant, their expensive and limited services are worse than the less expensive or free cross platform ones by far.

        Google, Amazon and Microsoft..are UTILITIES everyone can use .

        Apple is Members only club...that is not hip with guards outside and drunks inside about to shut down due to lack of patrons

      • async2013 says:

        I have NOTHING Apple personally but i bet you they got all their money from people choosing to buy their products? Amazing isnt it? Imagine that people choosing to buy their product because they like it instead of having to buy a product because certain companies hate competition

      • BoltmanLives says:

        ..and they will be non-existent soon as the world moves beyond devices

        They are manipulative to the public and that in my book is not cool, I hold them mostly responsible for the dumbing down of society as a whole and for the economic sad state of people not having enough money month to month. They are cruel...and need to go into oblivion.

      • barely_normal says:

        WTF does this mean?

        ".and they will be non-existent soon as the world moves beyond devices"

        I can only think of that happening when the human race either develops telekinesis, or moves to a higher plane of existence.

      • BoltmanLives says:

        The world will all be your device, the one in your pocket is simple a cloud interface too small to do much other than be the interface to the world around you.

        That is why Apple is totally screwed...the world does not play "walled gardens"

      • barely_normal says:

        You have been reading too much Larry Niven, or is that Alan E. Nourse?

      • BoltmanLives says:

        No just aware where the world is going. Going happen over next 8 to 10 years

  4. lalit kumar says:

    Yes I am the big fan for google and google have very smart search engine now...

  5. conan007 says:

    Thanks to Google Photos, while I was researching it (e.g. on I re-discovered Flickr who recently (earlier this month) renovated their service (reported on as well), with new upload tools to back up local photos. Apparently the new Flickr is quite similar to Google Photos, including those automatic tagging, but it has no photo size limit (so not just 16MP), 1 TB is more than enough for absolute majority of users (well if you are a serious photographer you are likely to have high resolution photos and use Flickr anyway), and I don't have to worry (much) about my privacy. Now I am backing up all my photos to Flickr.

    • Danman1111 says:

      I did the same thing. I have heard nothing but bad things about the google photo uploader and Macs - so I'm uploading my 26,000 photos to flickr. Flickr doesn't take RAW I think.

      • Boltmanisnuts says:

        Umm exactly what did you hear?? The uploader on my Mac worked faster than any other sync app I have tried....Onedrive being the slowest.

        Also since Google Photo's is basically brand new I would imagine it is being hammered right now which proves even more how robust the sync is.

        I did know about the Flickr upgrade until today and I will be checking it out.

  6. I'm sticking with Dropbox at $120 year for 1TB. I don't want to alter my image quality for the sake of unlimited storage. Plus, I like that there is a Linux client, something Google promised with Drive, but never delivered. I find using Carousel on Android and iOS to be a great experience,

    • Juan Tirado says:

      You do know that you can store original size photos in Google photos? It'll just take up storage from Google drive wich has the best storage prices right now.

  7. Eric Sleeper says:

    "Your personal pics aren't just meaningful to you; they are, en masse, a hugely valuable commodity. That's the truth about Google Photos."

    And that sums it up for me. Another great Trojan Horse product/service from Google, that I wish I could opt out of being data mined/profiled for a small fee.

    • Boltmanisnuts says:

      Let me guess you use One Drive and you don't think the Microsoft does the exact same thing?

      If you are all in with Google, Android, Now etc, the service is pretty amazing in how it can truly help you in your daily life.

      I am not, but for those that I know that are it is amazing how it helps them. They show me stuff that their phones do to assist them, and it is pretty cool. They of course are totally in with Google.

      • Eric Sleeper says:

        Fully agree if you are all into Google EcoSystem it's awesome - at the price Google is allowed to profile you. Not just collect info on you, but profile you. In turn, that means manipulate you and your life.

      • Boltmanisnuts says:

        "In turn, that means manipulate you and your life"

        and Microsoft and Apple won't?

        If you are all in on any platform then you won't care.

      • Eric Sleeper says:

        Correct. If you are trying to argue if Apple, Google and Microsoft operate or commit the same level of date profiling, you are simply misinformed and like to be blind to Google's terms. However, that is the key thing, Google is don't nothing wrong, the terms clearly state they will data rape you (in different words). Of course, very few people read any terms. And one one thing I am learning, Google fans simply don't care.

        But out of the 3, and if you value privacy and not being manipulate with profiled ads, it would be Apple, Microsoft and then Google. The problem, just like Google Maps is way in it's own league, so is Google when it comes to this.

  8. Danman1111 says:

    It is a business decision for Apple to choose to catch up or not - they just need to flip a switch. In fact, they could do what they did with music, $25/year for unlimited storage of photos in the iCloud. Probably a middle ground, but with the integration with iOS and MacOS I might even bite. Or just give unlimited photo storage with ANY paid tier of their iCloud service - now that would be pretty keen.

    Apple is clearly behind in this, but Apple doesn't have the "mining" profit that Google does. So we will see where this ends up. Probably in the future all cloud storage will be free . . . it is just a matter of time.

  9. wittgenfrog says:

    Irrespective of what you believe about the data-gathering carried-out by GoogleAppleMS et al, the simple fact is that you "pay" for their services, one way or another.

    The biggest differentiator is that while Apple is a HardwareServices company, and MS is a SoftwareServices company, Google is a Data-gatheringAdvertising Company.
    It seems logical to expect that with no other profit centres, Google will more diligently (or "ruthlessly", if you prefer) mine whatever data you place in their systems, than will MS & Apple. Consequently I'm confident that if you were to read the respective Agreements from each, Google would have the right to access, analyse, mine, repackage & sell your data in more detail than the others. That's what it does for a living.

    Two English sayings that predate the interweb by a few hundred years summarise what's going on here: "you don't get 'owt for nowt", and "If you sup with the devil, use a long spoon."

    The issue isn't that in order to use many "free" Services we sign a Faustian pact, it's that like Faust we are unwilling to accept the consequences of our signatures. Personally I prefer to pay up-front for Services you can get fro free from Google in order to preserve as much "privacy" as possible. Sadly, I rather suspect that privacy is illusory given recent revelations. I'll tolerate (up to a point) the State's right to snoop, but I see no reason to encourage Private Corporations to do so .........

  10. Lance Pelosi says:

    anybody knows if there is a size estimator of the photos and videos that doesn't count towards the size limit? i got 22GB of data on dropbox but i'm not sure if it will fit on the 15GB google account

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