I’m standing at the top of a mountain. There is snow all around and the sun is just starting to set on the horizon. Everything is still and all of a sudden a stag, with his full set of antlers silhouetted by the setting sun, stumbles onto the scene. I pull out my iPhone, swipe to the left to open up my camera app and snap the magical scene. “Not Enough Storage”. The deer snorts, and walks back into the pines.
Okay, that never happened. But my God is it annoying when you can’t take a picture because your pitiful iPhone storage is full, and there is no chance I am paying Apple’s iCloud prices to sync my photo library there (£6.99 a month for 1TB).
I had searched for ways to resolve the problem, flirting with iCloud but finding the same old “not enough storage” issue beyond the tiny 5GB free storage tier. I backed my photos up to a physical hard drive, but this was no good when I wanted to show off my ‘Banff 2016’ album to a stranger.
Then someone told me about the Google Photos app, which was released in the summer of 2015, and I thought it was too good to be true. Unlimited photo backup, on my phone, and with quick view capabilities for the entire library right there on my phone and across any device where I'm logged into my Google account.
Okay, it did take me three days of on and off uploading to get my entire library backed up to Google Photos, but once they are all there it is set for life. I was able to stop backing up to iCloud straight away, opening up some storage there, and then clear a solid GB of storage from my iPhone hard drive instantly.
The real kicker with Google Photos is the typically elegant and simple user experience. Similar to Gmail or Google Docs, the design is kept clean, simple and intuitive, with photos organised in chronological order and a single search bar located at the top.
There are your normal albums and also a photo assistant which will randomly produce Instagram-style filtered images from your library, which it calls a ’stylised photo’.
The search bar is where Google Photos really stands out, and gets a bit creepy.
Without tagging anything I was immediately able to search ‘Nashville’ and all photos I took in the city came up in an instant.
This is possible thanks to a group of Google developers, led by computer vision specialist Tobias Weyand, who have been building a deep-learning system called PlaNet, which can determine the location of photos just by its pixels, not the geo tag. Full details of the project can be read over at MIT technology review.
Google’s robust computer vision algorithms also allows Photos to detect ‘football’, ‘stadium’ or even a place name like ‘Stamford Bridge’ with ease. It could even detect photos of me with or without a beard.
Drawbacks: privacy concerns
Naturally, nothing this good comes for free. It is important to state outright that your photos will remain private unless you post them publicly.
However, as the catch-all terms of service state: “When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.
“The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones.”
You will also have to accept some compression of images if you opt for Google Photos, something the service is upfront about when you start uploading your library.
This compression, presumably, is where Google extracts data from the images, as the terms of service again state: “Our automated systems analyse your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customised search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”
It is worth noting that Google doesn’t have a spotless track record when it comes to privacy, with former CEO Eric Schmidt famously stating: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Furthermore, just as with Apple iCloud, your images could be hacked. So if you are a celebrity with some photos that you would rather not be made public, keep them out of the cloud.
Another worry is that Google could ditch the service at any time. It’s not uncommon for me to get attached to a brilliant web service or app only for it to be killed off overnight.
Lovers of Paper, or email services like Mailbox will know the pain of a much-loved service being killed off. If this were to happen the fate of your photos would be up in the air and very much in Google’s hands.
The thing is, this is Google, and the company probably isn’t going anywhere soon. The holding company Alphabet brings in annual profits of nearly $4 billion and services like these are easy for them to maintain with their infrastructure and desire to hoard your data.
It’s a nice to have for them and that is unlikely to change. Just make sure you make regular backups to a physical disk to ensure for the worst, but I am sure you were doing that anyway…right?