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Will Google Really Store All Your Photos Forever?

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Photos by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

I’m used to getting extravagant promise from Internet companies. But anything inviting an unlimited and free commitment stands out from the even the most ambitious online come-ons.

Yet that is the offer on the table from Google now:  Google Photos is a free, “single, private place to keep a lifetime of memories.”

The company is offering unlimited, ad-free and private storage—I lost count of how many times representatives used the phrase “for your eyes only.” And the only tradeoff required is your letting Google compress these images and videos in a way that it swears you’ll never notice.

Assuming you’re open to doing business with Google—I know some of you are not and will remind me of that in the comments—how should you evaluate a proposition like that?

Something for Nothing

As I’ve written before, when a company offers a service for free you need to think about how it will sustain that over time.

Let’s get a little deeper than mean reciting the old saying, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” and then resigning ourselves to being a target of ads. (For a concise, witty debunking of that cliche, see Derek Powazek’s December 2012 post “I’m Not The Product, But I Play One On The Internet.”) There are all kinds of ways a company can make it worth giving away a service in pursuit of a larger goal.

In Google Photos’ case, it’s just flat out free for almost everyone (although there is a paid tier, $10 a month for a terabyte of storage of photos at full native resolution), but there’s no other visible means of support. There are no ads. Said product manager Anil Sabharwal said at a press briefing on Thursday: “We have no monetization plans.”

You can, however, discern a broader motivation: keeping you around as a logged-in user.

You don’t have to take my word for it, as Google just posted its clearest explanation yet of its basic bargain at privacy.google.com. The company uses your data to provide focused services. It also charges advertisers to show ads based on an anonymized version of your interests.

The same basic idea underlies free services from most other mass-market Internet firms. Such as Yahoo, the publisher of Yahoo Tech, which runs its own free photo-sharing services at Flickr.

Playing a Long Game

What about the implied promise to store photos for a lifetime? Few companies founded less than 17 years ago—Google’s date of incorporation is Sept. 4, 1998—are in a position to talk a game that big. But this isn’t just any company.

“They’re one of a few players who can make users the promise, we’ll be around for your lifetime,” said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum. “Apple, Google, Microsoft, a limited number of players can be trusted just from a business perspective.”

Then again, if you asked on Sept. 4, 1998 which tech companies would be around for the long term, the fragile-but-recovering Apple of the day would not have made most lists.

With Google, my worry is not the company going away but the service vanishing. As Jeff Carlson, a professional photographer and tech-book author, put it, “they have a lot going against them”—starting with the “sunsetting of so many other hyped Google services.”

Just looking at the last eight years of products launched at Google I/O, many now shut down, can make you depressed. Or at least cautious.

In some ways, a smaller company has a simpler sales job. Take Evernote, which I’ve relied on for my note-taking since 2010. One reason I trust it is that the company has pledged itself to one core business model: making a premium version good enough that some people, myself now included, will pay for it.

“We explicitly reject all indirect revenue streams,” CEO Phil Libin said at the Demo conference in 2013. ”We are not a ‘big data’ company.”

Backups Are Hard

No matter how much you trust a company to treat you well over time, you need an escape hatch—the ability to take your data away. As developer Gina Trapani wrote in a 2009 post that’s stuck with me since: “When You Put Data In, You Should Be Able to Get It Out.”

Google Photos meets that test; it’s already among the menu of services with export options on Google’s “Download your data” page. (Yahoo’s Flickr does not yet offer a one-click download for all your photos.)

Ideally, every Google Photos user would avail themselves of this option once a year, just in case. 

People like Carlson, for example, whose photo archives are cloned among “the media drive that holds the photos, a backup on-site, and a backup off-site.” But even he admits one weakness: “That system doesn’t account for the possibility of Godzilla squashing Seattle.”

You could go old-school, and print out your photos on paper. But you’re likely taking far more digital photos than you ever took using film (if you’re old enough to have used film), and paper is eminently losable. “They’re going be lost under the bed or thrown out,” Polonetsky said.

Instead, we have to make our own decisions about how much trust various Internet services deserve. We’re making it up as we go along. Thing is, so are they.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.