Five takeaways from our Visual 1st fireside chat with Google Photos John Fisher


            1. Meeting the challenges of a single photo solution used by 1/5 of the world’s population requires consistent adhesion to a clearly defined mission, coupled with intensive user research.

Despite the enormous demographic, cultural, and economic diversity of Google Photos users, Google Photos has managed to thrive through a single offering: there are no East Asian or West European versions, nor are there specific versions for the elderly, teens, young parents, etc.

Crucial to Google Photos’ success has been its clearly defined mission that caters to a universally shared human need: visual storytelling and reminiscing.

To understand its users’ diverse needs and learn of any ethnic or cultural sensitivities, Google Photos undertakes extensive user research in different geos and among different demographic segments, coupled with research that measures how well Google Photos is performing among these different user segments.

John Fisher, Sr. Director of Engineering, Google PhotosPhoto: Mikkel Aaland
John Fisher, Sr. Director of Engineering, Google Photos, speaking at the Visual 1st conference. Photo: Mikkel Aaland

                   2. Customer needs do evolve, and so should your features but while keeping your mission in mind.

It’s easy and often tempting to stick with a successful solution and only iterate the features that initially spurred the solution’s success.

It’s equally tempting to jump on the latest and greatest trends and to compete with the developers launching them.

Google Photos managed to avoid both quagmires. It started in 2015 as a cloud-based photo storage and management service, leveraging Google search prowess as its main competitive differentiator. Google Photos has since evolved to become a solution for consumers to visually document their life stories and revisit important moments of their past. To further support this focus, Google Photos has also added other media types, such as maps, text, and video, to provide context to these memorable moments.

As more and more consumers have come to expect to have these features at their fingertips, Google Photos has more recently added easy-to-use features for correcting or creatively enhancing consumers’ photos.

All of this remains guided by Google Photos core mission to enable visual storytelling and reminiscing.

                              3. The bottom line matters even for Google. And consumers are willing to pay when they see that value exceeds costs.

How long can a no-advertising photo cloud service continue to provide unlimited photo storage to 1 billion monthly users? Well, not forever. So, in 2019, 4 years after its initial launch and around the time that Google Photos passed the 1 billion user mark, Google determined that it could not continue to provide unlimited photo storage for free. It decided to require a Google One storage subscription for new storage exceeding 15 gigabytes, starting at $19.99/year.

As we’ve also heard previously at Visual 1st from Don Macaskill, CEO of Flickr/Smugmug, there is no way to avoid charging for photo storage services if these are intended to serve their customers for the long haul.

The effect on Google Photos after canceling free unlimited photo storage? Its user base grew 40% to 1.4 billion monthly active users.

Google Photos has evolved very little since its inception…on purpose.

                              4. Being part of a gigantic company slows down but also speeds up innovation.

It’s only natural to expect that the larger a company, the more product development will be slowed down by regulatory, brand adherence, or other corporate requirements. While these do indeed slow down development to some extent, Google Photos has also been able to stay agile and innovate fast by leveraging the brain power and other resources it can draw from other Google divisions, including those involved in AI, smartphone cameras, cloud storage or video app development (such as Deepmind, Pixel, Google One and Youtube).


                            5. Tying features to computing platforms requires carefully balancing the benefits of maximal deployment, platform revenues, and platform-specific optimization.

These days, not all Google Photos features are available to all Google Photos users.

For instance, some of Google Photos Ai-based features were originally launched on the Google Pixel phone, thus giving the device an additional competitive boost before these features were implemented for all Google photos users.

Other features specifically leverage the pixel camera or its processors, giving those Google Photos users an optimal on-the-edge and real-time photo engagement experience.

Features such as the recently announced video boost are so computing-intensive that they require processing in the Google cloud.

At this point, however, the vast majority of Google Photos features are platform-agnostic and can be used by all. Hardware- or cloud-specific features are the exception rather than the rule.


{ Kaptur is a proud media sponsor of Visual 1st conference}



Author: Hans Hartman

Hans Hartman is president of Suite 48 Analytics, the leading research and analysis firm for the mobile photography market and organizer of Mobile Visual 1st, a yearly industry conference about mobile photography.

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