Apple needs to fire a big shot in the photo wars

ios8 photos

Weird as it may sound, I’m still using iPhoto.

Yes, I know Photos for Mac has been out for a while now, but I’ve yet to make the jump. Granted even saying that I’m “using” iPhoto is a bit of a misnomer; I haven’t purposefully launched the app in months, at least. That’s not to say I don’t take photos—like everybody else with a smartphone, I snap my fair share. Last week I traveled to Portugal and the UK, and took a couple hundred alone.

iPhoto, for me, is really just a repository for the photos that get imported to it via Photo Stream—someplace that I know that all my photos are safe and sound. And I’ve been wary of adopting its successor, iCloud Photo Library, in part due to some concerns about its uploading process, but mostly because what I have right now works fine, and its stability is a matter of record.

Still, I know this system is untenable in the long term, as Photo Stream will probably go the way of iTools and Ping in the not too distant future. And if recent announcements from Amazon and Google are any indication, my photos are about to become a hotly contested battleground.

Or, as a certain Jedi master might say, “Begun, the photo war has.”

Accept no substitutes

icloud prices

iCloud's free 5GB just isn't enough to store photos, but upgrading is expensive.

Photos occupy the intersection of data that is both cumbersome and difficult to replace. If I lose another media file, such as a movie, TV show, or song that I’ve bought, chances are I can redownload it or find it again online. Photos, on the other hand, are often irreplaceable. And unlike my other irreplaceable files, which are primarily word processing documents and PDFs, photos occupy a lot of space. We’re talking about an iPhoto Library that’s 55GB, goes back over 15 years, and contains thousands of photos. And that’s still pretty small compared to other folks I know.

Of course I do back up my photos, both to a USB hard drive nightly and daily via the cloud backup service CrashPlan, and while that makes me confident that my photos aren’t about to totally disappear into the ether, neither of those do anything about providing ways to access or view those pictures.

In truth, what I want—and what Apple, Amazon, and Google are all promising to various degrees—is the ability to store and access my photos, no matter what device I’m using. Given that all are offering similar features, the question then becomes: to whom do I trust my precious, irreplaceable pictures?

War!

This is where we get into priorities. I’ve spent enough time with products from Amazon, Google, and Apple to be able to figure out the respective strengths and weaknesses of each. Amazon, for example, is great at scalable storage, but it doesn’t have much of an ecosystem and its software, especially for Apple devices, is often lacking. Apple, on the other hand, creates great software, but often falls down when it comes to online services.

google photos ios 3up

Google's Photos app has free storage, but lets machines index and search all your images, which could creep some people out. 

That’s the reason Google’s Photos announcement from this week’s I/O conference intrigues me. Not only does Google have a solid track record with services, it also produces excellent iOS apps. Mountain View, smartly realizing that it wants as many people on its products, regardless of what platform they use, has carved out a nice little niche for itself on iOS over the last few years.

Not that Google is problem-free—the company often takes criticism around its collection of information, which sometimes comes across as…let’s say “overzealous.” To paraphrase Ian Malcolm, Google gets so wrapped up in thinking about all the cool things that it could do that it sometimes doesn’t stop to wonder if it should. So the idea that Google Photos can automatically assemble all the photos of someone from birth to the present day? Yeah, that’s starting to veer a little bit towards “creepy” on the Creepycoolometer.

Stay in the picture, Apple

And here’s the rub. I’m an Apple user for a reason, and I really want Apple to do a great job of storing and presenting my photos. I’m rooting for Cupertino here, because I think the company has a history of being on the side of its customers. But in addition to the wrinkles with its new photo solution, the company’s current approach to cloud storage pricing is simply not competitive.

Google and Amazon are both offering free options for storing a lot of photos, albeit with caveats, as well as low-priced plans for storing pretty much every picture you take. Apple, meanwhile, still has only a paltry 5GB for all your online data, and is charging twice as much as Google for a terabyte of storage. Some question the entitlement that leads us to argue that photo storage should be free—I say it’s not entitlement, but clearly a matter of market forces: when companies like Amazon and Google start offering free cloud storage, well, that’s competition at work.

For me, the clock’s ticking. Though it’s unclear exactly when my current setup might expire, I’m giving Apple as much time as I can to respond to Google and Amazon’s respective salvos. When the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference rolls around in just a short couple weeks, I’m hoping that Apple takes a hard look at its photo offering and paints us a compelling picture.

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