Some thoughts about the future of photostreaming

Photostreams are now just a commodity for any social service, and has improved dramatically for the last months. Facebook and Flickr recent improvements may be two obvious examples. Let’s list first some trends in 2012:

Bigger is better
That’s obvious: the experience improves with the picture size and photostreams are now able to display much bigger pictures.

Adjust to your screen size
Services like Flickr allow you to see a given picture of a stream, by clicking it, at the maximum size possible. Cool.

Endless stream
That’s also obvious, we hate clicking on “next page please”, and, freaking consumers that we are all like to see as many pictures as possible in the shortest time frame available.

Mosaic and no blank space please
Similarly, photostreams are now more and more mosaics without any blank space between pictures. That’s sound obvious nowadays, but that’s something actually recent. However, how and if you must crop pictures to display the stream is something yet not so clear:

Square crop
Square crop has become very popular, but for some, like Flickr, who are still preferring a justified streaming. Unlike some, I am not a fan of square crop, even if I do understand its usefulness, and to be more specific, for mobile device.

Present limitations
I understand my pictures must be cropped, but right now, it is far from being ideal. And browsing my Google Picasa albums with front page badly square cropped is just depressing for a photographer. Intelligent cropping tools are now starting to be available, so hopefully, this will improve soon.

Another problem with streaming is actually the search. We mainly browse mainly by either “time” or “tags”. This experience can be really frustrating, as pictures are now counted by billions, and you don’t want to see most of them for many reasons. Actually, it is becoming a real challenge to find the kind of pictures you are looking for. The trend – more and more pictures taken every year – will make the search experience on pictures more and more frustrating without some dramatic innovations.

That’s why I am sure, or at least I hope, that many new intelligent tools will be soon available. There are many ways to find what you are looking for and that’s how photostreaming may evolve: you can already give an aesthetic number to a picture. That’s very arguable, though. But I prefer from far missing some good pictures because the tool miscalculated their aesthetic value and browsing only “nice” pictures than browsing tons of uninteresting pictures for me. Yes, interestingness is really something photostreams are taking care of in a very basic way so far. Other tools are now providing a context to pictures, trying to avoid not only the tagging tasks, but providing some semantic to a picture to let people browsing it the way we want.

On top of this, there are now many ways to push your content to different channels and one person can post a picture to many streams. So services like Pictarine look to me a great way to display photostreaming by person. This dimensions does matter too. Search & display by people is really something still at its infancy for photostreaming. But let’s go a little bit further, I would love being able to look after a kind of photographer. Right now, finding new photographers that you like is a challenge, as we have all very different tastes. And photography has become so popular, there is no such thing than discovering new skilled photographers lost in armies of photographers you can’t care less about. Anyway, tha’ts something else I would discuss in another post.

Conclusion: how to handle an exponential volume of pictures?
So to make a long story short, the main challenge of photostreaming, in the future, would be to take care of “volume”. I believe that several business will be extremely successful if they will be able to improve the photostreaming experience of users. Welcome to a digital world of billions and billions of pictures… and counting.

What Google Drive now means to photography and Picasa’s users

Yes I know, it is no more “Picasa”, nowadays man must write “Google+ photos”.Yes, but it is still “Picasa” as you need to download it first. Thank you Google, I love you, but your engineering inconsistency is typical of the geeks I know so well! So I will try to clarify the mess due to a somewhat clumsy if not incomplete integration of the 3 services

Basically, Picasa used to be:
– A way to store pictures on line,
– A way to share pictures on line,
– A catalog software with some easy to use features for improving your pictures.

Google implemented Google+ but created a confusion as some services of Picasa are still available. More important, Google Drive has been released later than Google+, which added to the confusion as some services of the former Picasa (like storing on the cloud your pictures) was not feasible but thanks to the older Picasa services. Even more confusing, you can still do the same thing thanks to both services, but you don’t get the same result! (tip: you can still use Picasa the old way) and you don’t do it the same way!

Drive is much better than the former storing services of Picasa, as your files structure looks like the same way than on your desktop/laptop (at last!) and not the stupid flat way of Picasa’s storing services. For some people, sharing with Google+ is not exactly better than with Picasa as long as your contacts don’t belong too to Google+, and frankly can be confusing. But at the end of the day, that’s the future and I think people can share much more easily thanks to social network compare with the old fashioned way (emails!). So yes, you need to learn how to do it and your contact should join Google+. I believe that’s a great photosharing service for private pictures, much better than Facebook thanks to Google privacy options and policy.

As a photos catalog software (Edit/Organize/Publish), Picasa is still Picasa and compare with others, I like it even if far from being perfect. I think the main advantage is the speed display of the (big) thumbnails which is, as far as I know, so far unchallenged by, for instance Lightroom. However, this software looks of course much better in many ways, but as a pure catalog software, I just prefer Picasa. The trade off with Lightroom is not easy, for many users, as improving pictures is much better with Lightroom. But that’s something else. Let’s come back to Google+ and Picasa!

Google has let some Picasa’s feature alive which are actually very disturbing and should not be used: you can still “Sync” your albums, so you might use this feature for storing. Bad idea, as explained before, do it with Drive. “Sync” is only useful when you want to share an album. So that’s how you should work with Google+ Photos/Picasa:

– Use Picasa as a catalog software to delete, classify, and organize your pictures, enhancing them (the crop feature is a must, others are not as good, but can do the job very often) simultaneously,
– Store then online thanks to Drive (or competitors like Dropbox),
– Create files for albums of the best photos you want to share,
– Sync them online, and share them thanks to Google+

And my final word: enhance the pictures thanks to Lightroom, after having deleted and organize them thanks to Picasa. Share them with Google+ for private picture, or with the other photosharing services (Facebook, Flickr) for those you want to make public. Yes that’s a lot of software but in software, there is often no holly grail. So you need several of them to do the job efficiently.

Open Source and photo sharing

I am a big fan of open source and of photo sharing. Both together can bring something quite unique on the table but you should ask yourself whether every open source projects works really or not as an open source initiative – useless to write as a useful project by itself.

Most of the time, however one should carefully understand the limitations of an open source project, and the motivations of its main mentors and contributors.

For instance, I like the idea to have some open source code available for catalogue, or sharing pictures, or both. Whereas it is now a commodity (E.g. Picasa – oops I mean Google + photos! – is free), it is far from being often an open source code commodity. And you need the code if you want to build something. That’s not important for end users, but that’s critical for developer working at a new photosharing site for instance.

Therefore, the licensing of the code, something very technical if not boring that you should really look at, however, should be very permissive to let users build easily on top (E.g. of some permissive licences: LGPL, BSD, Apache). GPL will not allow you to monetize your work efficiently, and in many cases, it could be a show stopper for your project.

Whereas I am not so much a fan of Openphoto, I like very much their Apache licensing. Conversely, I like the Pixi.me, free image hosting and photo sharing, based on an open source photo gallery which is, unfortunately, licensed through a GPL. Both projects seems to be commercially-driven, I am fine with that, but I just want to mention their are not community driven (those used to be working with open source project will understand the nuance between both).

Actually, I would split projects in different kind, that’s not specific to open source, but just to clarify things. So I would like to list the services related to the photo workflow:

  1. Post-processing (E.g. Photoshop for the high-end, Aviary for the common mortal),
  2. Cataloguing (Picasa, Lightroom),
  3. Digital Asset Management (Actually for photography “Picture Management”: Lightroom but also Razuna for an open source player),
  4. Publishing services (usually embedded into DAM/cataloguing software but not always and must be customizable),
  5. Photosharing (Flickr),
  6. Analytics (sometimes embedded with Photosharing, sometimes not),
  7. Curation services (Pictarine)

My list is neither exhaustive nor static, but that’s a start.

And whereas projects are done for end-users – non technical people, I am in favour of developers-oriented open source projects where the technical frameworks are getting commoditized and free from the grasp of commercially-driven teams. Open source projects, modular, consistent with this approach, and based on very permissive licensing, would be very useful for everyone. People involved into the projects would get rewarded by reusing the code of the commodities and by influencing standards and trends. That’s basically what people are calling “community driven open source projects”.

Right now, photo sharing is indeed too much a proprietary thing. I hope open source will influence it the right way, so basically the community way. Commercial vendors are here, o.m.h.o., to propose some unique and seamless experience well integrated of the services listed in this blog, but mixing open source projects with end-users commercial ones may be confusing for both developers and end users.

So yes, Flickr and other Smugmug should be based on more open source frameworks and should open more their API. But I am still wondering the added value of trying to replace them by a project like Openphoto!

Sorry but we are not living in a brave new world, that’s good, and obviously photo sharing is going to evolve a lot!

Open Photo: a good idea but may be just a missed opportunity

Photo sharing is hype, we know it. Open source is cool. So a match between both should be fantastic. Open Photo would like to be this great player, able to put together some freedom to what has been so far a proprietary thing.

I like very much the idea to split where you are storing your pictures from the presentation itself, where you publish them, and done through an open source code, that’s just great. But actually many people are already doing it sometimes, not in an open source way. For instance, I am using Google to store my pictures, and I publish them through many channels (FB, Flickr, Tumblr, Google+, …).I don’t publish one picture through many channels because I must, but because I like. Don’t mix up “to store” with “to share”. You don’t do the same things with these different photo sharing websites. There are overlaps, fair enough, but I need all of them. So to make a long story short, you can store images on photo sharing websites, but you are not obliged to and, personally, I don’t recommend doing so!

My first point: the very unique idea of Open Photo seems to make not proprietary all tags & comments of your pictures and to let you store them where you want. If my understanding is correct, I don’t find the story not so much appealing.

Conversely,  tools like Pictarine can be much more helpful, acting like a “Pictures hub”, storing nothing but curating your published images.

I think there is a confusion somewhere, and we should get back to the basics of “Digital Asset Management“, something not as hype and recent than photo sharing. You must make a difference between:

  1. How I am taking digital pictures
  2. How I am doing the post-processing
  3. How I am managing the versionning of each picture
  4. Where and how I am storing them
  5. Indeed, I will publish them through many channels and with different formats, so publishing channels processes are the next thing to take care of
  6. Last and not least, how I am managing the social experience with my pictures

I have the feelings that Open Photo is going to be “one more photo sharing experience”. Of course they will pretend the opposite! But frankly with have already rather too many photo sharing options than too few. And I know the Open Photo’s team knows it. On a side note, flaming Smugmug and Flickr, like the are doing, looks weird to me. They have their defaults, limitations and weaknesses but, I mean, they are quite good at doing what they are supposed to do! And they are actually quite unique. Photobucket and the other Instagram are not evil per se, they are proposing a social experience of their own. Yes, photo sharing is broken and must be fixed, but that’s more because of its immaturity, not because of its lack of open-sourceness.

Open source is more for improving interoperability and standards, as every vendor try to lock-in its customers, and open source must act against this evil. But again, open source is for technology, not for end users experience – even if some open source teams will often try to pretend the contrary.

So yes, you should not store your pictures with the same provider than where you are publishing them. And you certainly don’t need Open Photo to do it. But do you really need to own the comments and tags of your pictures? That’s arguable.

Maybe Open photo could be a kind of competitor of Pictarine, they are both dealing with curation limits of photo sharing services, even with a very different philosophy, or maybe even work closer if not together, but so far Open Photo looks more like again reinventing the wheel, like too many open source projects, instead of focusing at real innovation, like some do, with so much success. As far as I know, one should remember open source is mainly if not only attractive for geeks, developpers and techies. End users, the mainstream, don’t care or/and don’t understand what it means to be LGPL / Apache licenced and don’t want to belong to the great Github community! I don’t think Apple can be known as an open source company – no kidding! – but they are very much liked by end-users. So do many Flickr and Smugmug users, even if they can criticize these services.

So, what do we need?

I need one and only one tool which will let me storing my pictures “anywhere” (I could switch from Dropbox to let’s say Google drive! – or the opposite if you think Google is evil), manage the versions of my pictures, and will let me publish them every where, and which will let me enjoying and handling well the social experience I am developping with them. And I need it by picture (the asset is “one picture, several versions, many published items, its comments and tags”).

Simple, but not easy at all.

For the record, Lightroom could make it, but so far does not really. It is indeed the Swiss tool of pictures’ management, not the real “pictures hub” I need. It does not manage at all  the social experience, that’s more for Pictarine which, conversely, does not handle the assets themselves. They provide a time-display, but no per asset display like Lightroom, which is still unable to show what-the-hell you are doing with you assets. Something Pictarine is very capable of.

Should this software be open source, that would rock. Should it not be, too bad but I may use it nevertheless. That’s how open source works: it is better with them but it works without.

Photo sharing and digital filters: hype and soon old fashioned?

Instagram, hipstamatic, flickr, lightbox and much more… Some are more hype or cooler than other but at the end of the day, they may, can or will do the same job:

1. Shoot with your smartphone,
2. Apply a digital filter (with a 70’s look),
3. Share it in a way or another.

But frankly, it would be very primitive to believe that they are popular for another reason than just being new. Basically, their services will be soon commodities for other social websites, should it be Flickr, FB, G+ or any other. It’s fun to look at digital pictures masqueraded like analog ones, but for how long?

It looks important to make a difference between a stand alone new service and a funny, useful, or cool innovation with a limited entry-barrier. Some will say 30 millions of fans is not so limited, fair enough, but implementing their features into a social community does not look so much complicated either. I just want to mean: relax, that’s just for the hype, some investors are going to get some return from their ventures (e.g. the IPO of Facebook is coming soon), so don’t mix things up.

I won’t be surprised that within some months, or just a fewones, and maybe not so many, it will be very old fashioned to post a photography with an analog touch.

Two things are sure, however: photo sharing will stay popular, and social websites will continue to grow…

Can instagram hysteric acquisition motivate at last Yahoo! ? Will photosharing at last be fixed?

I don’t say it is not cool but I am not a great fan of Instagram (I would prefer from far a social service like Path). I don’t like its photos style – or rather that it obliges you to have Instagram’s style. Apart from the fact is well done and famous, I don’t see any rocket-science here. That said, the acquisition of the photos-stream-for-mobile-with-some-cool-digital-filters would help other obsolete and old fashioned websites (like Flickr) to modernize its UI and experience. We need more real photosharing websites, I hope that’s Yahoo! will understand at last on which treasure they are sitting, or rather sleeping…

More important, whatever photosharing website(s) will ultimately prevail, I have no doubt its integration with other services will be paramount. We are overwhelmed by social websites and experiences, even the best can now barely sustain using  so many services. You cannot just add more and more, and we need some rationalization. Will it be FB, or Google or another one? Will services like Pictarine will become compulsory to survive in a crowded world of social websites and photos sharing services?  I can’t say of course but it looks to be urgent to fix photo sharing…