Apple Might Finally Solve Photo Storage Hell

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The Term Sheet Mating Dance

Editors Note: Brenden Mulligan is a co-founder and designer at Cluster, a web and mobile app which enables users to create private social networks around interests and experiences. 

We take a bazillion photos with our phones and digital cameras. The digital images mostly just sit, clogging up our hard drive(s). This has been a problem for as long as digital photography has existed and it’s getting worse. Camera resolutions are getting bigger and with it, the file sizes of our digital photos are growing.

Although many companies have taken a crack at this problem, I think Apple’s upcoming iCloud Photo Library could be the perfect solution — if they do it right.

Photo storage is still a mess

I currently have a 100GB iPhoto library on my Macbook Air’s 250GB hard drive. I look at the photos approximately never. But I’m not going to delete them. They’re my memories, and even though I don’t look at them often, I want to preserve them.

I could move them to an external drive or cloud storage, but keeping an iPhoto library on an external drive can be messy. I have them backed up through Backblaze, but that requires I still keep them on my computer. Same with Dropbox (without more advanced configuration).

The point is, there isn’t a turnkey solution to:

  • preventing these photos from clogging up my hard drive
  • making sure these photos are safe
  • being able to access them whenever I want

Sure I could design a complicated storage solution for myself, but most users won’t do that.

People have tried to solve this problem

Over the past four years, a bunch of startups have tried to solve part of this problem. Everpix had a nice solution but went into the deadpool last year. Snapjoy was scooped up by Dropbox early and is now Carousel. ThisLife was acquired by Shutterfly. And a few more never made much of a splash.

In my opinion, no one has done it right.

I once started to work on this problem

In 2011, I prototyped a solution. It was called Photobank. It worked by:

  1. uploading the photos from your device(s) to the cloud
  2. removing the local high-resolution versions from your device(s)
  3. replacing the local versions with low-resolution copies
  4. allow any device to access the photo library and download high-resolution versions.

The business model was simple: Users would pay for the service according to how many photos they saved.

I was so compelled by the idea that I put a concept pitch together and sent it to some friends. The feedback on the idea was positive. People agreed the problem existed and this would be a great solution to it, but ultimately I decided to not build Photobank for the following reasons:

People wouldn’t pay. I don’t think people are willing to pay for photo storage on top of their normal file storage. That led me to the conclusion that if anyone was going to solve this problem, it had to be Apple, Google or Dropbox.

Too much upfront load. Users need to understand value from a service in order to pay for it. Dropbox and Evernote users experience the magic of the services slowly and usually only need to pay when they’re already hooked (because they’re using it so much they run out of space). With Photobank, users wouldn’t get it until their entire photo library was imported. This is a huge load for the service for each user and would be really hard to scale.

Crowded space. There were already enough players in the space and I wanted to see how things shook out over the next few months before diving into the idea.

I wanted to focus on collaboration. Personally, the most compelling part of Photobank was the collaboration aspect. But the way I wanted collaboration to work would only happen if a user’s social graph was already storing all their photos on Photobank. That kind of saturation would take a long time, and I didn’t want to wait for that hurdle for users to access the collaboration features.

Instead, I co-founded Cluster to focus purely on aspects of photo collaboration and left solving the storage problem behind.

Apple might finally have a solution

At WWDC 2014, Apple announced a big upgrade to its Photos app and iCloud Photo Library, a service that claims to be the ultimate backup system:

This sounds amazing, but it sounds like it’s limited to iOS devices, which doesn’t solve the problem of my computer being full of photos. However, Apple also announced a new Photos app for OS X, which seems like it’ll eventually be an iPhoto replacement for the desktop. This has me hopeful that they might be closer to building something actually worth paying for.

My iCloud Photo Library dream

Knowing that Apple is moving in the right direction, I wanted to put together a brief wish list for the iCloud Photo Library. As you’ll see, my hope is that the service isn’t much different from what I initially envisioned for Photobank. Here’s how it would work:

  1. I would connect my iPhone, iPad, or Mac (through iPhoto or the new Photos app) to the iCloud Photo Library.
  2. iCloud would move all of my original photos off of my connected device and onto iCloud servers. They would leave a much smaller version of the same photo on my device (optimized for the device, so low res for iPhone wouldn’t be the same as low res on my laptop). If I wanted, it would also save this low resolution version to my other connected devices.
  3. When I opened my photo library on my device, I would instantly see the local, low resolution versions of my photos. I could scroll, swipe, and pinch to my heart’s desire without accessing the network.
  4. If I needed a higher resolution for printing and editing, it would then — and only then — pull down the larger image from the iCloud servers. Once I was done with it, it would save the edited version to iCloud and get the large image off my device.

If they set it up this way, photos would no longer clog up my hard drive, always be safely backed up, and completely accessible whenever I wanted. A dream come true.

As for the expense, Apple has already announced very reasonable new iCloud pricing; $50/year for 200GB is great. For comparison, Dropbox is $200/year for 200GB.

This is my hope for iCloud Photo Library. I have a feeling it’ll be a fraction of this at first, but over time grow into the service I’ve always wanted. Although this would obviously only work for people who have adopted the Apple ecosystem, I think it could be one of the most straightforward, turnkey solutions that could exist, and would be very appealing to Apple’s entire customer base.