Google Photos Launches with Unlimited Backup

By Norman Chan

Google's calling it "Gmail for Photos"

Google's relaunched Photos service and app are here, and it's a big deal for the company. As we've discussed on This is Only a Test, Photos is our favorite part of Google+, for its automated backup feature and ease of downloading and sharing pics. Now it's split off of Google+ completely, relaunched as a sort of Gmail for Photos. That could be a good thing for Android and iOS users who have hundreds if not thousands of photos saved on their phones. But as with typical Google services, you should also think about what Google gets out of it too.

Here's how the new Photos service works. On the app front, it's the updated version of the Photos app for Android, which Google has been using to compete with default Gallery apps on OEM phones. The app is as useful as its ever been, allowing automated uploading of every photo and video saved on your phone, either over Wi-Fi or cellular. "Full resolution" photos are now saved, up to 16MP, though they're actually high-quality compressed versions of the JPEGs found on your phone. Each phone compresses their JPEGs differently, so we'll have to do more comparisons to see whether Photos backups are truly archival quality. Still, we're just talking about smartphone photos, so most people don't care about a little bit of compression. Videos are saved up to 1080p resolution, and Google is touting unlimited backup storage using the high-quality compression setting. (You can still archive actual original photos, with a storage quota.) Detected duplicate photos on your phone can also automatically be deleted, saving you some local storage. The app is also now available on iOS with the same features, making it at least a solid complement to Photostream.

What's new is mostly on the web side, where Photos has been streamlined for better archiving and search of your photos. This is where the Gmail analogy is most appropriate. Instead of treating Photos as a Flickr or Instagram like showcase of the photos you want to share, the thought is that it's an archival service first, sharing service second. The thought is that you don't have to worry about curating anything--just let Photos handle all the sorting and backup of your photo dump, and allow it to tap into Google's image-processing algorithms to digest it. Then, just like searching through old email, you can dig through old photos by searching for people, locations, and even objects Google has recognized in your photos (eg. animals, food, plants, etc). Backend work has clearly been going on for a while, since the new Photos is already up and running, and surprisingly fast. It's like Lightroom for the smartphone photos you don't plan on tweaking to death.

So what does Google get out of it? The company said that it has no plans to monetize it with ads, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have advertising--its core business--in mind. What Google gets is an incredible dataset of user photos to refine its image-recognition algorithms. It really sounds like a play a computer vision, like Stanford researcher Fei-Fei-Li's use of photosets to teach AI how to recognize an image of a cat. Except in that case, the dataset was only 15 million photos--Google has access to orders of magnitude more data, with both active and passive user feedback just through the use of the Photos service. Improving image search puts us one more step toward better video search, as well. And unlike Flickr or Instagram, search is something that Google actively monetizes.

For more on Google Photos, Steve Levy of Medium has an insightful interview with the service's director, Bradley Horowitz.