Google is showing some signs it understands how photography is changing on the Net.
In the olden days, people posted batches of digital photos on the Web in photo albums their friends would look at occasionally. Often half the point of uploading the shots was getting them to a place like Snapfish or Shutterfly that could create prints.
Picasa Web Albums, Google's photo-sharing site, was born in this era. Now, though, photos are becoming an in-the-moment part of people's online social lives, notably with Net-connected smartphones and Facebook sharing with friends. Picasa Web Albums--never a product that advanced at blazing speed--is beginning to adapt to this era. Perhaps Google's success with its Android operating system has made the company more aware of just how far the world has moved from the shoebox-of-prints-in-the-closet days.
First up is a more social interface to Picasa Web Albums that shows what your contacts on the site are up to. Google has struggled for a couple years now to build social connections into its products, nevertheless falling ever further behind Facebook in the area, but this change could help people branch out.
Yahoo's Flickr, of course, has had social connections built in from the start with groups, comments, and sharing, and Yahoo has been trying to promote those aspects by spotlighting this activity at log-in. But here, too, Facebook's key asset--the active participation of many of your social connections--is a more powerful draw when it comes to using photos to stay in the loop. Also, Facebook can share text, but Picasa and Flickr really don't do well for sharing anything besides photos or videos.
Second for Picasa Web Albums is a photo and video price break. The site previously was free to use for up to 1GB of data, but that amount of space could quickly be gobbled up, especially with videos.
The new pricing means photos smaller than 800 pixels on a side or videos shorter than 15 minutes don't count toward the 1GB freebie limit. Given the dropping cost of storage, it's a reasonable way to lower a barrier that might keep people from using Picasa. (Buying more storage space costs $5 a year for 20GB, but other sizes are available too--$50 annually for 200GB or $4,096 for 16 terabytes, for example.)
Most new smartphones take shots more than 800 pixels on an edge, though, so until "share a smaller version" becomes a common option, people might still be reluctant to build Picasa into their online daily lives.
Last is the addition of Picasa Web Albums photos to people's Google Profile. People often care how they appear and don't care to express that with just a little thumbnail; but more to the point, this change makes the Profiles page a more fleshed-out hub for whatever online social activity Google plans to launch next.