Picture me excited. The new Photos app that Apple announced yesterday that will come to iOS 8 later this year -- and to the Mac next year -- is perhaps the solution to the "photo bankruptcy" I've wanted to declare.
Is Apple about to deliver the smart shoebox for storing photos that so many of us need?
The answer is no, because not everyone uses Apple devices, upon which Photos depends. For those who do, Photos has a lot of promise. For those who don't, Apple's move might jump-start solutions from others that are more inclusive.
For the past year or so, I've been struggling to get my photo situation in more order. I've felt overwhelmed with the number of pictures that I and my family take. Ensuring they're backed up and organized made me write about wanting to declare photo bankruptcy last year. As I explained then:
"I want one place where all my pictures are kept secure and organized. And I want the photos to be easily viewable on a variety of devices, whenever I want to see them. And if I want to tag the shots, adjust dates, geolocate them, and so on, I want to be sure all those photos will retain that information if I move elsewhere."
I've made some progress since then on what I've come to consider to be the five essentials of any photo solution:
Call the criteria BOSES, if you like. Here's how Apple's new Photos app, as well as some other options I know of out there, seem to measure up in each of these areas.
More than anything else, a photo solution should try to back up your photos as soon as possible after they're taken. If the photo is lost, none of the other features matters.
The good news is that so much has improved over the past few years to help with this, for the many photos we take with our phones. Apple's Photo Stream for those on iOS. Google+ Auto Backup helps both Android and iOS users. Microsoft OneDrive helps Android, iOS and Windows Phone owners
Apple's primary weakness has been the 30 days/1,000 photo limit -- that only the last 30 days of your photos were kept in the cloud, that only the last 1,000 photos were kept in your device-based photo stream. With the new Photos app comes a new iCloud Photo Library that can keep all your pictures, though after 5GB, you'll have to pay for additional storage.
Microsoft offers more for free, 10GB for those who use OneDrive and activate camera backup. Google offers even more, 15GB of "full-size" storage (and unlimited 2048px "standard size" storage). Flickr trumps them all with 1TB of free storage. There's no Windows Phone app, but it does support Android, iOS as well as the Mac and Windows.
Getting the most free backup isn't everything. Paying for additional storage might be well worth it if the service has other features you want.
Date-based organization is sort of a "safety" solution, when it comes to finding photos. For example, if I know the general date of when I took a picture, usually I can then browse to find the image of the person or location I'm after. The good news is that storage solutions almost always provide basic date-based sorting
Some, like Apple and Picturelife, will also sort photos by location. Google+ provides a "Highlights" feature to try and surface what it considers to be your best pictures, plus it will automatically enhance pictures or do "auto-awesome" versions such as making animated GIFs or videos from your images.
Often services will allow for the creation of custom folders, albums, and so on. I also think this is a crucial feature. However, I believe customization like this more appropriately belongs in the "Editable" essential that I'll get to last. That's also true for organization by facial recognition or tagging.
I debated calling this category "Viewable," but I thought "Shareable" was more inclusive of both sharing and viewing. If you've taken pictures, you're likely going to want to share those pictures with others, whether that means sending someone an individual picture, pulling the pictures up to view on a mobile device or laptop, or broadcasting to a TV.
Apple has a big weakness when it come sharing. If you don't have an Apple mobile device, you're not getting to those pictures easily.
Sure, iCloud Photo Sharing does work for Macs and PC. It's just not as easy as with the mobile devices, where you can quickly skim through your camera roll. On the Mac, you'll have to fire-up iPhoto. On the PC, you'll have to configure iCloud to write to a special location there.
If you're on someone else's Mac or PC, you're largely out-of-luck, unless you install software or want to mess with an existing installation. If you're on Chromebook, such as I'm writing this article on, forget it.
In contrast, Google, Microsoft, Picturelife, Flickr, and others let you view photos through a browser. If you can get to a browser and log in, you can view and share your pictures with anyone -- no app required, as with Apple.
The new iCloud Photo Library looks to solve this issue for Apple, promising a web-based interface. That will be good news.
As for sharing -- as in sending to others -- most services offer a variety of options here, ranging from sending of individual photos to creating streams that can be shared with friends and family.
What's most interesting to me is "reverse sharing," if you will, where you can have photos from others stream into your collection. It's something I know that Picturelife offers, though I've never gotten to using it yet. Apple's offering it also as part of Family Sharing with iOS 8.
Having all my family photos flowing into one place I can manage sounds fantastic. But Apple's solution isn't going to work automatically for my one son who uses Windows Phone, nor for me when I'm using one of my Android phones rather than my iPhone.
When it comes to editing, many may think I'm focused on the idea that you can crop, adjust, enhance or otherwise make your pictures look nicer. Well, sure, I want that, and many of these services offer it.
But I'm also more fixated on the idea of editing in terms of organizing my pictures into those custom albums I've mentioned earlier, or training the facial recognition to find pictures of my family, or adjusting dates and locations when the meta data is lacking or incorrect.
As I wrote before, when I was wishing for a smart shoebox to store my digital photos, I once spent about two years doing this type of meta data editing -- along with some image editing -- only to find none of that done in one photo management program could transfer into a different one.
Bitten once; twice shy. Before I do any type of editing work again, I want to know that it won't be lost if I should move programs or services.
Sadly, few of the solutions out there seem to solve this much, cross-platform. If I create albums in Google+, those aren't coming out of Google+. Nor do the auto-enhancements that Google+ makes of my images automatically flow out. Nor is the work I do in iPhoto going to flow across to Google.
This has all kept me from moving ahead with any editing at all. But Apple's new change with in terms of the Syncable element may change that.
Anything I do to my collection, I want to know that it will sync across to wherever my collection is stored.
In particular, for me, this means that if I do editing using a photo management tool like iPhoto, I want the changes saved both locally and with my images that are stored in the cloud. The same is true if I create custom albums or favorites.
Until now, Picturelife seemed the way for me personally to go. It promises to support iPhoto or Aperture, so that changes I make locally are kept in sync with Picturelife's cloud versions.
Apple new Photos app seems to go one better, promising that edits made on my iOS devices will sync to the cloud -- but also not destroy the original photo -- plus maintain my custom albums and favorites. Presumably, this will all be true for the Mac version, as well.
I can't say at the moment how this compares with photo tools for Windows. It's been ages since I've used them, but I'm fairly sure Windows doesn't have a native solution that matches this yet. As for Google, I've not seen many people talking much about its Picasa app as some type of wonderful interface for Google+ Photos. I certainly found it lacking last year, when I tried it briefly.
Two weeks ago, I finally finished getting 10 years of family photos -- 40,000 of them totaling 100GB of data -- backed up and in sync with Google Drive.
Because I'm paranoid, I store all my photos locally and organized into folders by time, as I've described before, an example of which is shown to the right. And because I'm paranoid, I've also had that "what if the house burns down and wipes out my local and backup drives" concern.
Google Drive solved that for me, helped me have that cloud-based backup that I wanted, staying in sync with my local drive. I could have used OneDrive, I suppose, but I needed more space on Google Drive for my email anyway. It was worth the $24 per year for space to store them all (or the $120 per year I actually pay, as I went up to 1TB to have room to store some family video).
Google Drive also gave me rudimentary sharing, in that I can browse images through the web. I'd have better browsing if I stored my photos with the same account I use for Google+ rather than using a Google Apps account. I'll spare the complications on why I don't -- let's just say Google+ ought to support Google Apps better.
As for editing, I just hooked Aperture up to interact with my original files, so that I can browse more easily locally. Next up, I was going to commit to making edits such as custom albums and favorites, figuring it's probably a safe bet anything I do in Aperture will be supported by Apple for years to come -- and Picturelife talking to Aperture was going to give me my cloud-backup of edits.
I'll probably put that on hold until the new Photos app arrives -- and let's face it, it wasn't like I was rolling in time to get started on phase two of my project anyway!
I'm hoping Photos will indeed make this all easier for me, though I really need it to talk to what's on my desktop rather than my devices, as that's where all my long-term photos are stored. We'll see, but I feel like there's more light at the end of the tunnel than ever before.
I do wish Apple would take things beyond its own devices, though. Why not release Apple Photos for Android, for Windows Phone or iPhoto for Windows? Why not finally get it that Apple potentially is an even stronger company if it gets people to embrace the Apple Cloud rather than just Apple devices?
I don't hold out much hope for that. But for those who want what Apple's promising outside of Apple, I'd be looking to Google and Microsoft. Apple's moves are going to put more pressure on them to step up their own solutions. And if you can't wait, Picturelife still seems to me to be especially worth the time for those who want many of the key elements I've described above.
I'd also recommend checking out a still recent article by Troy Wolverton, of the San Jose Mercury News, who does a nice round-up of cloud-based photo services covering some details I don't get into above. Also, for a good look at Picturelife, see this article from Mobile Industry Review.
I hope those better solutions will come for everyone, regardless of platform. We desperately need them.