Some Thoughts on Google Photos vs Apple Photos

Google I/O is as good as any time to take stock of the disparate and polar opposite ideologies of Google and Apple when it comes to machine learning and privacy. And nowhere it is more evident than in their respective photos apps: Google Photos and Apple Photos.

Google Photos released many new features that help alleviate the problem of too many photos. We live in a world of “fabric of photos” (as explained in a previous essay) and as a result, it is difficult to think of photos we take on our phones as individual discrete elements. Sure, some of us use photography as a medium to express ourselves creatively. But a vast majority of us are using the camera to capture receipts, remembering coffee dates, or taking selfies.

So it makes perfect sense — our smartphones to not only make it easy to capture our pictures, but they make it dead simple to upload them to the internet and eventually organize them in a manner to showcase only the most relevant of those photos. It also makes perfect sense that only the most pertinent get shared. Google started down this journey with Google Photos in 2017. It is dead simple to upload, store and quickly catalog photos on Google Cloud and more importantly, it has become good at identifying the right kind of pictures.

At Google I/O 2018, the company announced that it is now going to make it dead simple to edit those photos. It might not be good enough for some of us who think of ourselves as “creative photographers,” but for a large swathe of the population, the ability to quickly “brighten a dark picture, or hide a screenshot from your library in just a few taps” is particularly alluring. Google says it will start offering “a range of suggested actions show up on your photos right as you’re viewing them, such as the option to brighten, share, rotate or archive a picture.”

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The editing actions taken by Google Photos users will train Google’s algorithms to make these edits more efficiently. It wouldn’t surprise me that slowly and surely, the “machine” becomes smart enough to touch-up our selfies, provide an ability to airbrush our warts and present a new set of editing features. Google’s blog post was short on details, but TechCrunch talked to David Lieb, Product Lead of Google Photos, who shared additional details, and many of these features come from Google’s Photoscan technology, which is a way to fix “photos of documents and paperwork, by zooming in, cropping and rectifying the photo.”

One tool will analyze who’s in the photo and prompt you to share it with them, similar to the previously launched sharing suggestions feature. Another prompts you to archive photos of old receipts. The new Google Photos features were announced along with news of a developer preview version of the Google Photos Library API, that allows third-party developers to take advantage of Google Photos’ storage, infrastructure and machine intelligence

It is unclear to know what is the long term vision for Google Photos, but it seems for Google, Photos, bring a lot of visual data into its platform, and it also gives it the ability to create algorithms and models that can be applicable in future applications such as autonomous vehicles, video conference calling and in general automating the Google experience — a big theme at Google I/O 2018.

Google’s ambiguous stand on privacy makes me uncomfortable with the fact that they can use photos to create a visual social graph and then apply it to other parts of their sprawling offerings. In case of Google, more data begets more automation and ease of use. As humans, we will give up a lot of freedoms in the name of speed and convenience, and that is the evil genius of data-capitalists like Google and Facebook.

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The improvements in Google Photos and lack of magic in Apple Photos sometimes make me wonder if I made the right choice by buying to Apple’s ecosystem and its ideology around software, data, and privacy. Apple has made it a priority to not mess around with our data and privacy. Apple CEO Tim Cook has publicly championed privacy as a human right. It is fundamentally the critical difference between them and Google.

Time and again, Apple has explained to me that they do a lot of their “intelligence” on the device, use strong encryption and make sure that we control it.  In simplest terms, our photos from iPhone are uploaded to the iCloud but are encrypted as a “blob” and if we want to share some of these photos, these are downloaded from the cloud, and a new instance is shared using (I am guessing) a sharing encryption key. It works, but not as seamlessly as things do on Google, which works on the premise of peering into your data. I am not comfortable with Google’s stance. But I am also human – lazy & convenience are deeply encoded into our brains. So when I use Apple Photos, I am left wondering about their approach.

In my social circles — admittedly a very tech-centric community — it is hard to find anyone who has told me that they love Apple Photos. Usual refrain tends to be – “That’s a mess.” There are no magical aha moments. Photos are Apple and by extension, iPhone’s currency. And yet the software on iPhone and Macs resembles a two-legged dog dragging itself over the rocky ground. Yes, there is assurance that it is not feeding some giant ads-spewing web monster, but by Jove, it isn’t a fun experience, and not magical.

And that is the exact opposite of how you feel about the actual camera app and how simple and elegant it is compared to its rivals on other platforms. Magic comes from the way the software works on the hardware, and that is where Apple has put most of their photo emphasis lately: on the camera itself. Samsung, OnePlus, Google Pixel and Huawei are some of the Android phone cameras I have tried, and have been underwhelmed by them. Not because of the camera hardware, but by the overall experience.

A friend pointed out that Apple Photos is facing the windows XP conundrum. It’s so damn successful and used by so many different types of people that it’s tough to change things for their ever-growing diverse global user base. It has become a place for more that than photos, it’s for receipts and screenshots. So it has to do more nonphoto things than google photos like present slides on stage, be the document holder for people without computers but want digital versions. Therein lies the difficulty for Apple.

So what should Apple do? Good question, but no right answers. For starters, Apple Photos should stay simple and become even more straightforward. Apple, possibly, should think about expanding beyond storage of photos in the cloud, to create experiences that make photos more valuable and meaningful. What those  experiences are — your guess is as good as mine. For now, I will look at Google Photos and hope that when it is time for WWDC, Apple has some nifty tricks up its sleeve.

A letter from Om

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