After my last post on photo management it became obvious that I was far from alone in my concerns about iOS photo management. The article hit a nerve and thousands of people retweeted it and even John Gruber and MG Siegler linked to it.
The problem clearly affects a lot of people. The question is what to do about it. Photos have been updated in iOS7 but few of the real problems seem to have been addressed.
The problems with iOS photo management today
1. No ability to organise photos across devices
iOS still extremely ineffective tool for organising images across devices. While iOS7 has introduced “moments” which seem to cluster photos by geography and time, there’s still no way to edit either the naming of the moments or even the clustering of them. Not only that but the moments are (so far) still tied to each individual device.
2. No ability to access photos cross-devices
Without doing a three-way sync with a Mac (which you may not even own) it’s more or less impossible to get a clear set of organised and curated photos natively synced across devices. Photostreams are unfortunately a mess and so no native way to settle back with your iPad and put together an album which you might later access from your Mac or iPhone. This is a tremendous waste.
3. Not enough value to make it worth paying for backup
iOS does offer a background backup service for your photos. This is helpful and the entry-level pricing of $20/year is much more manageable than Dropbox’s $120/year. However, while an investment in Dropbox gives you sync-space for everything, Apple’s is far more limited and basically won’t be used for anything more than photos. Dropbox offers you far more flexibility with the storage you purchase.
Dropbox should solve the problem
This space is hot. Photo backup is almost certainly the key to getting consumers to pay for backup and that is a very large market. After my original post, many representatives from startups and some very large companies got in touch to suggest I try their photo products. A number were good but after trying many of them I realised that Dropbox is the company I want to solve this.
I want this because at its core, the problem fundamentally boils down to syncing files across my computers. That’s going to cost me money and bandwidth and will cost my computer processor time and memory. I already pay Dropbox to do this and I don’t want to add the complexity of another service running in parallel.
Dropbox is also in a great strategic position to do this. Many people are loyal to iOS or Android but many more (perhaps the majority) are not. Android’s catching up with iOS fast and against Apple, Dropbox is in a strong position to nail this space because it’s one of the few companies with a strong foothold across both platforms. If you’re not 100% sure that you’re sticking with iOS you definitely won’t want to commit to Apple for long-term backup.
Unfortunately though, while Dropbox has the sync part down, it offers almost nothing else. Here’s what I think it needs to start doing in order to tackle this:
1. Provide a cross-platform Photo Management API
Cross-platform today means much more than it did ten years back. However, to deliver on photo management, Dropbox needs a photo management tool and that means they need one on every platform. I think the complexity of the project means that the key to success is probably not focussing on interface but instead focussing on building a superb-quality, cross-platform API and datastore.
I’d build a common, core-database and API and then completely separate the challenge of building applications for iOS, Mac, Android and Windows. Running a cross-platform interface project would be a nightmare whereas starting with an agreed-on database, file-structure and editing API could at least decouple the interface programmes. It would also let developers build and sell management apps for the platform themselves.
Minimum functionality for such a synced API would be
- delete photos
- organise photos into albums
- leave scope for smarter auto-album-organisation in the future
- simple editing (red-eye / crop / auto-enhance / filters)
- store edits with original file and only ever present one copy to the user to organise
Building a set of native clients is no small task and if I were running that project I’d want to know how much overlap there was with applications which are already on the market. Companies like Loom are surging ahead with great functionality and if you could buy them and retrofit their interfaces to a common set of standards then you could shortcut a lot of dev time.
2. To endeavour to become the native Camera Client for the user
The more frequently the user interacts with their photo library, the more time they will invest in it, the better it will be and the more they will value it.
One way to increase interaction frequency is to be the native camera app. This doesn’t need any fancy functionality but should offer at least parity with the existing native app. On iOS you you unfortunately can’t rely on being *the* native camera app because fastest way to access the camera is through the lock-screen and only Apple has access to that.
3. Remove the confusion around multiple copies of photos
This seems small but is fundamentally a huge problem. People need to stop having multiple copies of photos. If you have multiple copies it means you don’t know which one to delete or which one to edit. Creating copies of photos in a photostream which are then edited or deleted separately from the original photo is incredibly confusing. All of this is a mess and a pain.
Dropbox needs to figure out one way or another how to make sure that users only have one copy of each photo in Dropbox and no others in the photostream or on the camera roll.
4. To make their pricing more accessible
Dropbox’s cheapest plan is $10/month which is a lot to ask from someone who’s never paid for storage before. However, and at least on iOS, Apple has kindly provided a forcing function to make users consider paying.
Dropbox’s biggest friend right now is the “Your iOS storage is almost full” notification. Users get this when they run out of their initial 5Gb on iOS and then have to pay to upgrade or start deleting photos. Left to their own devices most users will never pay for things and many people will just delete photos until the warning goes away. If Dropbox could do some jujitsu to figure out when a user hits their limit then they could message the user at the same point and undercut Apple.
Offer dual-tier storage
Data’s not cheap to store so undercutting Apple wouldn’t be easy but one way that Dropbox could do compete is by leveraging cold storage. Dropbox can offer to backup high-resolution photos securely but without immediate retrieval (i.e. by using Amazon Glacier or similar). That way they could offer peace of mind while charging a fifth of the price. Users could buy peace of mind cheaply and then pay for access later on. This could also be a way to segment the market and offer plans which are nominally high-storage without cannibalising existing higher plan subscribers.
Trade storage for credit card details
One of Dropbox’s biggest problems must be getting people over the penny-barrier and convincing them to open a new line of expenditure (storage). Making the ramp more shallow would help and giving them something for just entering credit card details (1Gb storage?) would make it much easier to get involved. Paying for backup is a big thing for a lot of people and making that easier should be a big priority.
Young people are taking a lot of photos but aren’t inclined to pay for things (especially since many of them don’t have jobs) but within only a few years those people will become mothers and fathers with children and photos of those children that they don’t want to lose. The more Dropbox can get them over the hurdle of credit-card input and crossing the-penny-barrier before that time comes, the more likely they are to start paying to save their family memories.
5. To be fast, transparent and reliable
I use Dropbox to backup my photos and it currently has 5 photo (or video?) files which it refuses to sync successfully. I don’t know what they are, I don’t know why they won’t sync and I don’t know how to get them to sync. Because they haven’t completed I don’t trust that any of the library has completed and I’m not ready to delete the old ones on the camera roll. Every time I open the Dropbox app it takes over a minute for the photos section to load and it not infrequently crashes.
Dropbox also splices all photos stored anywhere in the Dropbox folder into the photos view of the application. This is both unexpected and undesirable. I don’t want drinking trips spliced in with family photos. If photos from a stag trips on a Saturday night are going to appear next to photos from a baby shower the next day then I’m never going to show people those baby photos because I won’t want them scrolling through the stag photos. The whole thing is club-handed and badly thought through.
Dropbox can’t afford this sort of confusion. The company succeeded with files because it did everything quickly, reliably and responsibly. Doing this right is no small challenge but a company which does will be treasured by its users. Dropbox needs to constantly go the extra mile in UX to show what’s happening and to give users the agency to fix problems themselves.
Why is this a problem worth solving?
The battle to win the world’s photo management market is a huge one. It’s a huge amount of work but it comes with huge spoils. The number of photos people are taking is growing exponentially. The devices on which that is happening are increasingly connected to the internet and Dropbox is already part of the file system on most of those devices. People want photos to be private by default and they want something then can rely on. Dropbox has already proved itself to be reliable and unlike Google Plus, Facebook and Flickr, it’s private by default. Dropbox is the heir apparent.
The cost of storage continues to fall while the number of photos and videos recorded continues to rise. The arbitrage opportunities are almost as good as they will ever be. In many ways I wish that Apple would solve this but that doesn’t look like it’s happening and for all of its lethargy in getting going, Dropbox is the next best bet.