Photo-sharing pioneer Flickr has a new owner: SmugMug

Don't worry, SmugMug won't try to turn Flickr into the next Instagram, CEO says as he takes over the site 10 months after Verizon bought it through its Yahoo acquisition.

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Stephen Shankland
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SmugMug announces its acquisition of photo-sharing pioneer Flickr.

SmugMug announces its acquisition of photo-sharing pioneer Flickr.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

SmugMug, a company that lets photographers sell and share their photos, has acquired Flickr, a pioneering rival for sharing photos online.

Yahoo acquired Flickr in 2005 and under former Chief Executive Marissa Mayer tried to revitalize the site after it lost luster with the rise of social-savvy services like Instagram and Facebook. Verizon acquired Yahoo for $4.48 billion, but evidently decided to cash out and let SmugMug try to push Flickr forward.

"The combination of the two creates the largest photographer-centric community in the world," SmugMug Chief Executive Don MacAskill said.

There will be changes -- starting with the separation from Yahoo's login system -- but nothing done without hearing what Flickr users want and need. "I'm going to listen to what they want and then build it," he said.

The new management could mean a fresh start for Flickr and its tens of millions of photographers who might appreciate an effort to reinvigorate the site. But fundamentally, SmugMug will face many of the same challenges Yahoo and Verizon's Oath group did: Photo sharing on sites that started as mainstream social networks is a vigorous, powerful competitive force.

The acquisition dramatically changes SmugMug's nature. The company was founded in 2002, two years before Flickr, but never became a major consumer brand like Flickr. Instead, it catered to professionals and enthusiasts, including those looking for e-commerce technology to sell their works or a website to showcase their albums.

Flickr rose to power in the days before mobile devices and grew strong off technically useful features, like an application programming interface (API) that let websites and other software do things like place Flickr photos on other websites or publish new photos to Flickr itself. Its "photostream" feature -- an ever-updated collection of your latest shots -- presented photography as an immediate reflection of people's lives, not just as static albums. And groups let like-minded photographers gather to explore specialties like architecture, birds or amorous insects.

Many Flickr members remain loyal, sticking around to contribute to particular photography communities or to check the work of their peers. And although much of Flickr use is free, many photographers pay for premium accounts to banish ads and get other perks.

Terms of the deal weren't disclosed. Yahoo didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. News of the acquisition was reported Friday by USA Today.

Not the next Instagram

SmugMug won't try to turn Flickr into the next Instagram or Snapchat, MacAskill said.

"Those service are already doing a really good job at being themselves," he said. Flickr and SmugMug are aimed at photo enthusiasts with a longer attention span: "If they're not hunting for that ephemeral burst of likes and instead are interested in that photo telling its story forever -- those are the people we have always been interested in."

SmugMug has millions of customers and billions of photos. Flickr has about 75 million registered users and tens of billions of photos, MacAskill said.

A better match than Verizon?

One longtime Flickr customer and visible photographer, Thomas Hawk, is optimistic about the new management.

"I think it will be good. I think the folks at SmugMug are really interested in using Flickr for community, which is where its best potential lies," Hawk said. "Verizon was not a good fit," he added, and it's good that SmugMug is focused on supporting the needs of paying users.

SmugMug required customers to pull out their credit cards from the moment it began business. That makes it hard to tap into the internet's explosive growth rates, but it also means companies can sidestep the downsides of free but advertising-supported websites that have become more visible with the Facebook's privacy controversy.

"It aligned us with our customers rather with than outsiders who didn't understand our business the way we and our customers do," MacAskill said. "That includes advertisers and investors."

SmugMug has about 120 employees and will absorb dozens more from Yahoo. "Essentially the whole team is coming over," MacAskill said.

First published April 20 at 2:55 p.m. PT.
Update, 3:39 p.m. PT and 4:53 p.m.: Adds further background and comments from SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill.

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