27 July 2015

Google Photos: a missed opportunity

I’ve been meaning to write a couple of things about Google Photos ever since its launch about two months ago, but I kept putting it off because there’s not much to say. It was met with excitement in the press, mixed with a touch of Schadenfreude as takes another step away from Google Plus. Personally I’ve yet to find something exciting about this new product, probably because Flickr (which I doubt the tech press remembers still exists) had a very similar offer just days before: virtually unlimited storage, native apps to automatically upload your photo collection from the desktop, iOS and Android, object recognition in photos. There’s practically no reason to switch from one to the other currently.

You could argue that, with its lead in search and data processing, Google should offer much better recognition compared to Yahoo-owned Flickr. But, as I said previously, I have little confidence in algorithms when it comes to automatically organizing and enhancing my photos. I uploaded only a couple of photos to Google Photos, back when Google+ was new and people still had hopes for it, and I already found a perfect example of algorithmic mistake. The photo below of a motorbike has a clear label ‘Paris’ which Google correctly recognizes. But Photos then assumes the picture was taken in Paris and places it in that collection, which is false: it’s from the BMW museum in Munich (it’s even correctly geo-tagged for that location!). I don’t see a way to correct this mistake in the interface, so my collection is messed up forever…

BMW motorbike for Paris Dakar race
Is this bike located in Paris? Or in Dakar?

The bigger problem of Photos is presenting itself as a cloud backup service, while it doesn’t actually work like a perfect backup. The free unlimited version downsizes files larger than 16 MP, so if at some point in the future you want to recover your collection, you will download lower resolution files than you uploaded. This might not sound like a big deal today – after all most photos now are just viewed on screens with much lower resolutions – but that could very well change in a couple of years and you might regret not having the original files. I am starting to regret not shooting RAW exclusively with my DSLR camera in the past to keep a high-res, lossless original as backup. And many Android phones already use 13 MP cameras; it won’t be long before smartphone cameras will capture higher resolutions than this arbitrary limit in Google Photos.

Google Photos is only “free” if you allow it to saved compressed versions of your photos–any photos over 16 MP will be reduced in quality. I don’t want that, so I have set it to only upload original files, which counts against your Google storage. (I currently pay $2 per month for 100 GB.) However, if you choose this option, even photos that are already under 16 MP will count against your storage. You can choose the “always free” or the “always pay” option, but there’s no “only pay for photos above a certain size” option.

John Bergmayer

Which raises the question, what is the purpose of Google Photos? Automatic grouping aside, it’s rather poor at organizing; the backup is a double-edged sword (convenient in the short term, problematic in the long run); social features are practically non-existent. Professional photographers will be better served by other services: a true back-up, preferably accepting RAW files, coupled with Instagram, Facebook or 500px for marketing and an online portfolio. Google gets to build a massive database of photos for its machine learning, data crunching software; you should ask yourself, ‘what do I get in return?

I chose to uninstall the Google Photos app, an app that is not obviously baked into my phone's Android operating system the way that, say, Android's Calendar app or Gmail are. So a reasonable person would expect none of my photos to ever end up on Google’s web site unless I somehow uploaded them another way. Google Photos is baked into newer phones, meaning the user can't easily uninstall the app. Obviously, this isn't what Google meant when it said in its Google Photos introductory blog post that pictures would be backed up "so you can have peace of mind that all your photos are safe".

In my personal case, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that Google had access to pictures of my daughter and used that access to develop information, without my knowledge, about what she looks like and where she spends time. For the more than 10 million people who have Google Photos on their phones, how many sexting images has Google obtained without users’ knowledge? How many people have been photographed and now subjected to Google’s recognition technology without the photographer’s knowledge?

David A. Arnott

Post a Comment