How Google got photos right

Image of Google executive Vic Gundotra introducing new Google+ photos features on stage, flanked by a large grid of photographs.

As smartphone cameras become more capable, mobile photography has become a hotbed area for technical innovation and user experience improvements. Photos are storage hogs, and users take and share more and more photos online every year. How can mobile platforms better manage photos, and provide tools that make the status of photo data more obvious and accessible? Google+ managed to revolutionize mobile photography by understanding users’ needs and expectations—and it delivered a product built on algorithms and automation that solved real-world frustrations for millions of people.

Google revolutionized mobile photography by listening to users’ needs, and delivering a solution based on automation and algorithms.

Google debuted its social network Google+ in 2010 as an assault on Facebook.1 Private sharing within user-defined Circles was its killer feature, and millions of people rushed to sign up in just the first few weeks. But over time, the website floundered, and today active usership on the website is isolated to small groups of Google adherents.2

Despite its losing position as a social network, Google+ became the outlet for some of Google’s most exciting ideas.

In the course of its losing battle to attract users to its fledgling social platform, Google introduced some truly innovative and exciting web-based social features. Google Hangouts exploded into a powerhouse of web video conferencing and absorbed other Google chat properties like Google Talk and the short-lived Google+ Messenger. Google+ Sign-On became the standard authentication method for Google Play Services on Android, and helps connect millions of Android customers to their friends in games and other apps. But perhaps no Google+ feature was as impressive or adored as Photos—mainly because Google got photo management right.3

Google+ Photos reflects a clear understanding of users’ wants and an alignment with their interests. Whenever users snap a photo, the Google+ application on their phone automatically uploads it to their Google account on the cloud.4 Once there, the photos are algorithmically enhanced and organized into collections chronologically. Google customers now have an organized and beautifully optimized collection of every photo they’ve ever taken, and all they had to do was tap the shutter button.

Google customers have an organized and beautifully optimized collection of every photo they’ve ever taken, and all they had to do was tap the shutter button.

This approach, and the subsequent popularity of Google+ among professional photographers and novices alike, demonstrates the power and importance of automation in the user flow. By removing tedious tasks that plague many photo management programs,5 including organizing photos into chronological collections and adding light photographic enhancements, Google was able to dramatically improve the process of taking, storing, and editing the hundreds of photos our smartphones enable us to take.

And storing these photos is no simple task: modern smartphone cameras produce gigabytes of photos and videos for even casual mobile photographers, taking up valuable storage space on devices and complicating the process of archival on computer hard drives. With Google+ Photos, Google approached cloud storage as an organic and invisible extension of device storage, removing the confusing distinction between the 8 gigabytes in your pocket and the 15 gigabytes online.

Google helped users understand cloud storage as an extension of device storage, removing the confusing distinction between the 8 gigabytes in your pocket and the 15 gigabytes online.

But Google didn’t stop at editing and storing: with the introduction of Stories, the Google+ Photos system began to automatically generate interactive photo albums and video slideshows of users’ cloud-stored photos. These features leverage traditional metadata—like the photo’s geolocation and timestamp—to intelligently organize photos into enjoyable digital experiences that users can revisit and share.

Google’s approach with photos was novel, and not without imitators. Soon after Google+ Photos became a resounding success on both Android and iOS, photography startup Loom sprouted up to fill the functional void for non-Google customers.6 Facebook began automatically uploading mobile users’ recent photos directly to the service, allowing them to access their photo library from web and instantly share with their friends. But the editing and algorithmic intelligence were missing, and the web’s best photo manager remained tethered to its worst social network.

Google+ Photos’s algorithmic intelligence was hard to emulate, and the web’s best photo app remained tethered to its worst social network.

Apple, too, began exploring ways to integrate iOS photos into its iCloud service, but stumbled on the implementation. iCloud Photo Stream synchronized photos between Macs and iOS devices for seemingly arbitrary time frames, allowing users to download 30 days’ worth of iPhone photos onto their iPad before they were removed from the cloud permanently.7 Apple’s photo approach was broken, and Google+ would be its salvation. With iOS 8, Apple introduced iCloud Photo Library, a cloud-based photo manager that automatically stored and synced any and all photos taken on any Apple devices. The automation and ubiquity was reminiscent of Google+, and Apple extended those learnings to an all-new OS X replacement of iPhoto that’s built around the cloud.

Apple extended its learnings from Google+ Photos to its photo strategy across iOS and OS X.

Photos on mobile are a natural fit, an evolution of the platform’s ubiquity and easy access. As cloud storage prices drop and mobile camera capabilities steadily improve, photos became the quintessential test environment for how mobile apps should handle large user data across devices. Users expect automation and seamlessness, and any solution that requires new user flows needs a clear and unambiguous benefit for users to even consider them. Instead, Google+ Photos off-loaded the busywork to its massively powerful cloud services and photo-enhancing algorithms, and leant on generous cloud storage allotments to alleviate local storage headaches.

Google+’s intention to dethrone Facebook might have been an exercise in futility, but the experiment has been immensely valuable to the quality of Google’s consumer products. Through Google+, the company has solved for mobile photography and unified its schizophrenic instant messaging strategy. As Android evolves and Google continues to spin off Google+ products into standalone offerings, it seems that the search giant’s runner-up social network might continue to have a first-place impact on the mobile industry.

  1. Technically, Google+ was a formal replacement for Google Buzz, the “Twitter killer” Google introduced inside of Gmail. 

  2. Google’s reported usage numbers are propped up by Google+ sign-in, which has become deeply integrated into Android and other Google services. These numbers don’t necessarily represent users who actually navigate to and interact with the Stream or their Circles. 

  3. The service, of course, was based on the company’s Picasa acquisition and has painstakingly absorbed each of Picasa’s previous responsibilities over the years. 

  4. Users are granted 15 gigabytes automatically, shared between Gmail, Google+ Photos, and Google Drive. 

  5. I’m looking at you, iPhoto. 

  6. Cloud storage giant Dropbox soon acquired Loom and repurposed its technologies into Carousel, lending further credence to this method of photo management. 

  7. iOS backed up users’ full camera rolls to iCloud as part of its Backup service, which habitually filled the service’s conservative 5-gigabyte allowance for millions of users. Why upload those photos but lock them away in an iOS backup? Why force users to manually synchronize photos between devices?