Google Photos

My relationship with Apple’s hardware is simple: I’m happily locked in, and not changing platforms any time soon. But my relationship with Apple’s software is complex: I want to love it, but every time Apple decides to “throw everything away” and “start over” with an app, it’s disruptive — and for many users, unnecessary. From my perspective, users weren’t complaining that Apple’s popular photo apps iPhoto or Aperture were hopelessly broken or even deficient in major ways, yet Apple discontinued both of them last month to release Photos, a bare-bones alternative no one seems to love. On the relationship scale, I didn’t abandon Aperture; Aperture abandoned me (and a lot of other people).

So yesterday’s announcement of the free cross-platform photo and video storage app Google Photos couldn’t have come at a better time. Apple has struggled to explain why it now offers two separate photo syncing services, neither with the virtually unlimited photo and video storage Google is now giving users — notably all users, including Mac and iOS users. Moreover, Apple has offered no sign that it’s going to drop the steep fees it’s charging for iCloud photo storage. With WWDC just around the corner, Apple has a big opportunity to match Google’s photo and video initiative, thrilling its customers in the process. If that doesn’t happen, I’m moving my collection into Google Photos, and not looking back…

Google Photos is pitched with Apple-like simplicity and power. You get unlimited free storage in what Google calls “high quality” resolution — 16 Megapixels for photos, 1080p for videos — or take 15GB of space for unlimited-resolution photos and videos. As of today, it’s fair to say that 16MP/1080p is enough resolution for most people; Google picked great numbers. To put the limits in perspective, Apple hasn’t yet released an iPhone or iPad with higher than 8MP resolution for stills or 1080p for videos, which means that anything you snap with iOS devices should look great on Google Photos. Most standalone cameras out there have higher than 16MP resolution at this point, and some cameras are moving into 4K (2160p) video resolution, but the numbers Google picked will let typical users get full enjoyment out of every photo or video they’ve ever created.

Yahoo’s Flickr service took a different direction two years ago, offering a then- (and still sorta) incredible 1TB of free photo storage. The hitches: Flickr’s free storage is ad-supported, with a $50 annual fee to eliminate ads, and video storage isn’t included. There’s also a theoretical cap, although 1TB is a lot of space for even large photos — that’s enough for more than a decade of images, perhaps two, unless you’re shooting giant-sized RAW images rather than standard JPEGs. Still, Google doesn’t cap your storage, prevent you from uploading videos, or run ads alongside your images. Those differences make Google Photos a better deal.

Apple Photos

Apple Photos

Apple’s release of Photos hasn’t gone especially well. After abruptly announcing the discontinuation of iPhoto and Aperture, Apple effectively told professionals to switch to Adobe’s Lightroom (see our Adobe Lightroom CC/6 review here), and tried to convince everyone else to use the hugely stripped-down Photos. The major benefit of Photos is supposed to be a universal photo library that’s automatically synchronized across all of your devices. But you have to pay for it.

Photos pushes you to sign up for additional iCloud storage, which starts at a miserly 20GB for $12 per year ($1 per month) and grows to $240 per year for 1TB of photos and videos — prices that sounded crazy even before Yahoo and Google offered free alternatives. (Flickr previously offered unlimited, ad-free photo storage for $25 a year.) My own photo library is too large to store using iCloud, as it’s currently over 1.2TB without including home video files. But it would work just fine with Google Photos. For free.

From where I stand, giving users unlimited photo and video storage is unquestionably the right next move for Apple. Photos and home videos are some of the most important files people have; they’re some of the best records of your life (remember Blade Runner, anyone?), yet storing them, backing them up, and transferring them between devices is one of the biggest remaining hassles for Apple’s users. This is a rare situation where throwing money (specifically, additional servers) at a problem would actually make a positive difference for Apple’s customers. Many people have asked for more free iCloud space for device backups, which would be great, but I think a much larger percentage of Apple’s userbase would be thrilled to have Google-like photo and video storage.

Billionaires such as Carl Icahn can keep pushing to turn Apple’s gigantic bank account into a cash dispenser for shareholders, but I’d argue that it’s the right time for Apple to fund “free” photo and video storage as a major investment in long-term customer satisfaction and retention. Some of Apple’s “excess” profits could easily go towards what Google’s building: a giant virtual bank worth of safety deposit boxes, where customers are now storing their most precious possessions for as-needed access, anywhere. Once you upload a giant library to Google, what’s the chance you’ll download everything and do it again for another competitor?

If Apple’s going to match Google on the photo and video storage front, WWDC is the right time to make that announcement. I’m waiting until then to make my decision. Otherwise, I’m planning to move my photo library over to Google Photos, as there’s nothing on the horizon that will make Apple’s photo software or cloud services more compelling.

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