We all spend a lot of time in brainstorms, imagining the future. Often the excessively audacious ideas are shelved. Sometimes they’re kept but labelled “vision”.
And then, every so often, one of those weird or audacious ideas will materialize.
Whether that’s because you did it yourself, or someone else did it, it’s a very strange feeling. Like the storybook dragon coming to life.
There’s been a few for me. The hard-drive based mp3 player which can store every compilation tape you’ve ever made (aka the iPod – not the first but the first true incarnation), synchronized “last watched” positions in movies across devices (hats off to Netflix – again not the first, but the best), and “from here you could get home in 43 minutes” (currently best done by Google Now).
These are all a sort of reverse-Eureka moment, where not the idea but the reality, is the reason for jumping out of the bath.
Possibly the most audacious problem I’ve ever worked on is the challenge of managing digital photography.
For a short period, when our ideas were only constrained by Post-It glue, we had devised the perfect solution, only to find that it would be almost impossible to achieve.
The problems were clear. The volume of digital photography most people collect is enormous. The information held in photos is hard for machines to decode or file. Once lost, photos cannot be recreated. Whilst most photos are rejects, it’s almost impossible to spot which ones aren’t without (or even with) human interaction. Duplicates and close-duplicates are hard to pick out, and fit into multiple different use cases – sometimes it’s “take four so at least one of them is good”, sometimes its burst shooting on purpose, sometimes its burst shooting by mistake and on and on.
At the heart of it, the apparent freedom to point and click, click, click with little cost attached translates into a deferred cost of managing, storing and ultimately deleting which few care to deal with, and even fewer have a good strategy for.
These are all the consumer problems. What is the business problem?
We put it like this: knowing that consumers are trigger happy, and few have had the incentive required to take the management problem seriously (i.e. few have lost the wedding pictures and now think about it properly), no business in their right mind would get into the free-storage for photos business because:
- Unlike music/video lockers, there is no room for de-duplication
- Storage must be incredibly robust as must be any plan to delete user pictures (e.g. for inactive accounts) since the PR risk of deleting family photos is high
Yet, consumers themselves are highly unlikely to pay for such a metered service, as this would require them to act responsibly, which they don’t want to do, or sign up for an essentially open-ended cost.
Enter Google Photos. The search giant has woken from its social network madness, releasing photos from the inadvertent sharing risk which Plus imposed. And the chocolate factory has provided the user with several types of magic:
- Unlimited storage – no need to act responsibly
- Free up storage – Keep you photos easily accessible but off your storage-strapped device
- Auto-magic organisation (a technical term from the project team) – Turning photos into collections, finding duplicates, organising bursts, using information in pictures to categorize them (most notably landmarks), using meta data cleverly (e.g. if picture A is in London and 10 seconds before picture B, then it is likely also in London).
- Assistant – which creates fun and interesting slideshows and similar from your images and plays them back to you.
From the playbook we dreamt up five years ago, virtually everything is in there. It is interesting to see that facial detection is played down and social network ingestion is not currently present. But this will surely come, and with it, a whole new level of utility (especially if Google can crack the challenge of metadata removed by networks such as Facebook).
So the consumer problem is – for the most part – solved, including the ingestion problem with apps for various devices doing the heavy lifting.
But what of the business question?
How on earth can they afford it?
Considering the likely take up of this service, can we imagine them taking it down any time soon? Deleting users “memories”? Haven’t they saddled themselves for an indefinite period with an enormous storage challenge for images that even the photographer themselves may not care about keeping?
Here is where conspiracy theory comes in of course. The photographer. The hapless chronicler of first birthdays. Surely they must be the product. But how?
I can imagine only two potential business models. In pure storage terms, especially with video included, we could conclude that users will cost Google at least £30+ per year at commercial AWS/Azure rates (which presumably are above Google’s internal costs). They must be expecting to make this back in some way.
Option 1 – Driving Google Drive revenue. This is the straight-forward upsell path to store larger images and potentially other documents.
Option 2 – Monetisation based on data. To achieve this, we would have to suggest that the images will tell Google enough about their customer to increase the cost it charges for advertising in some of its many channels.
Given that Google already knows what you’re interested in, where you’ve been, who you know, what you buy and so on, what do photos give them? Perhaps device ownership or usage (through EXIF data). Perhaps putting faces to names (beware the conspiracy theorists!). Perhaps inferred data, like children’s ages is of such value that a case can be made but it seems pretty thin.
Of course, we may never find out exactly how they’re paying for it. But it is an amazing accomplishment and hopefully one which will quickly influence other ecosystems to finally take the pain out of one of the last issues that exist with personal data management.