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Microsoft: Threat or savior for Flickr?

Microsoft may mess things up for Flickr, but Yahoo hasn't been so great, either.

There are probably too many electrons already being spilt today on Microsoft's proposed acquisition of Yahoo. Rather than delving into the $45 billion aspects of the deal, I'm going to specifically discuss Flickr, Yahoo's popular photo sharing service.

Flickr hasn't been a big part of the general online buzzing about this proposed deal. In part, this is doubtless because it's a small part of Yahoo's financials. It's probably also because most people have at best a vague awareness that Flickr is even a part of Yahoo. Yahoo bought Flickr and has largely left it alone.

However, as Josh Gilbertson notes over on Wired, many Flickr users are "freaking out"--as indeed they also did when Yahoo acquired the company originally.

Josh goes on to write:

One the reasons for concern is that Microsoft's Web properties, while they have their share of adherents, are not exactly leading the pack in terms of UI design, functionality and ease of use, which form the cornerstones of Flickr's popularity.

Another interesting aspect of Microsoft's proposed deal is that Microsoft does not typically go after consumer services like Flickr, which creates a lot of uncertainty for Flickr's future should Yahoo shareholders agree to the acquisition offer.

If Microsoft does buy Yahoo, I suspect that the situation for Flickr will be different from their original acquisition by Yahoo. Under Yahoo, Flickr was largely left to go its own way. As photographer Dan Heller noted in a lengthy post about Flickr and Yahoo just a couple of days ago:

In any event, the conversation went pretty simply: Flickr is really regarded as a completely autonomous tech group with no orders or objectives to do anything other than be a fun place for people to come and socialize about their photos. They have no financial responsibilities back to the mother ship, and Stewart is free to do whatever he wants, with no long-term objectives. When I asked whether there (were) any plans to ever get into licensing or other forms of monetizing its content, he said that Stewart has thought about it, but they are enjoying what they're doing too much and such a move has dubious financial returns in a market already dominated by other very successful companies.

So what I think the various Flickerites are so upset about is that Microsoft might not leave them alone as Yahoo has done.

I think they're right. The question is whether that's such a bad thing.

Contra Josh Gilbertson above, I'm not inclined to give Flickr all that much credit for "UI design, functionality, and ease of use." For example, as CNET's Stephen Shankland notes:

For a Web 2.0 powerhouse, Flickr feels awfully Web 1.0. At least that was my conclusion after spending a few hours in the chat rooms of Photophlow, a start-up that grafts a highly interactive experience on top of Yahoo's photo-sharing Web site.

Flickr has been equally plodding at integrating any number of commonplace features to selectively control access to high-resolution versions of photographs or to institute security watermarks in any form. The shortcomings (and strengths) of Flickr are matters for another post I've been meaning to write. But, suffice it to say, one shouldn't confuse the fact that Flickr is popular in large part because it built up a big community for largely historical reasons with the fact that Flickr is a platform that's objectively great.

(Much the same could be said in spades for's social bookmarking service.)

None of this is to say that Microsoft won't mess things up if they acquire Yahoo and Flickr. But Flickr needs work and Yahoo hasn't helped much either.