I am not a Google fanboy. Far from it. While Google is not as cavalier as Facebook or as sneaky as Amazon, it is still a company that plays fast and loose with data and privacy. I point this out because I am about to take a contrarian position to the current brouhaha around Google ending free, unlimited storage on its Photos service.
In case you missed it, Google recently said that starting in June 2021, there will be no more unlimited uploading of gigabytes of photos to its servers at no charge. If you want to use the service, you will adhere to a 15 GB capacity limit — or you will have to pay. (For comparison, Apple offers a mere 5 GB for free.) The change won’t impact all the photos you have already uploaded to their cloud. Because Google previously touted “free storage” as a feature, many people are upset about this decision. Some think that the soon-to-be-former “free” aspect of the service drove many startup competitors out of business, which may or may not be accurate.
In announcing the change to its pricing policy, Google noted that there are “more than 4 trillion photos” stored on Google Photos, and “every week 28 billion new photos and videos are uploaded.” You don’t get this big without being good. I tried those apps Google supposedly killed. They were lame. Google Photos was and is better. And it has become better over the years. It has the best facial recognition and clustering technology. It can sift through hundreds of thousands of photos, finding the right people and the right moments. Compared to Apple Photos, it seems like a genius. Still, I didn’t trust Google with my photos. (I try it often, much like I try every product I think is worth keeping an eye on — except for Facebook, which is pure tripe.)
In fact, ever since the Google Reader debacle, I don’t trust Google with anything important to me. Maybe I have become more cynical over the years, but you have to be very careful when someone offers you something for free. As Milton Friedman said, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” There is always a quid pro quo. The only thing to ask ourselves: What are we giving up in exchange for something free? In the case of Facebook, we gave up control over our social fabric and reality. We give up something in exchange for free search or free articles on a website. Google Mail isn’t free. You get direct mail and marketing messages in your inbox.
So, why are we shocked that a for-profit company, whose quarterly results are celebrated by the media, and whose stock market performance is saving many 401ks, is looking to charge for a service it has offered for free? It has decided that the photos uploaded to its system have trained its visual algorithms enough that it doesn’t have to eat the cost of “free storage.”
By the way, those who wanted to host original quality (aka uncompressed versions) photos and their digital negatives have always had to pay for the premium version of Google Photos. For members of the media bemoaning Google’s action, the time to ask the tough questions was when Google Photos launched. Read this article in The Verge, and you’ll see my point. It is not like Google (or other big companies) don’t have a history of doing the switcheroo. As my friend Chris says, you can always switch to Amazon Photos — as long as you pay for Amazon Prime every year. Nothing is free.
But more importantly, we need to get used to the idea of how and what we think of photos and photo storage. Many of us who talk about photography and build photography-oriented products have an old-fashioned idea of photos as “files” and “keepsakes.” In reality, today’s photos are merely data captured by visual sensors that are then processed, consumed, and forgotten — with the rare exception of unique moments to be saved and savored later. This data is part of a never-ending visual stream. A whole generation is growing up with Snap and TikTok, and they think of photography and photos differently from those who came before them. Just as owning music or movies is an antiquated idea, photos aren’t there for storing for this new generation. Instead, they are an expression of their now.
In many ways, Google’s idea of marrying unlimited storage with the ownership of its Pixel phone is the right way to think about visual data. It creates a lasting bond and reliance on the device, but also allows one to live in ephemeral visual stream. Apple should pay attention. There is nothing like service-dependency for hardware.
For those of us who value our photos, paying to store them is worth the price. More importantly, it is better for all of us to get used to the reality that the era of free stuff (at least, legally) on the web is over. And tech companies are no different than their non-tech counterparts: They are here to make money, keep profits going, and keep the stocks flying high.