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Smugmug adapts for large, small screens

The 'SmugMungous' overhaul adapts photos to make maximum use of screen real estate. Also new: video that no longer is 'terrible.'

Correction: I updated the blog to correct a misspelling of Don MacAskill's name.

This is how SmugMug now looks on a 1280x1024-pixel monitor. It looks pretty good, unless you're the frog. SmugMug

SmugMug, a site popular among photography aficionados, has been retooled with a more adaptable interface and overhauled video-sharing technology.

The new interface, which the Mountain View, Calif.-based company calls SmugMungous, automatically displays one of nine different sizes of a photo on the screen, with a patch of thumbnails of related images to the left side. The reason for the SmugMungous name: the largest of these images is 1600x1200 pixels, enough to fill up very large monitors.

In addition, the new site comes with an iTunes subscription option so that friends and family can automatically download videos or sync them with iPods, he said.

But the company also wants to make it easy for the photo buff with a 30-inch flat-panel display to share images with friends and family with comparatively tiny monitors. The appropriate image is automatically displayed according to how much real estate the Web browser shows, and it updates automatically if the window size is changed, said Chief Executive and founder Don MacAskill.

"Our customers tend to be photographers with big cameras and big monitors, but they may be sharing with friends with 15-inch monitors at 800x600," MacAskill said. "The goal is so grandma can see it at home without you having to coach her to maximize her browser."

This is SmugMug's apperance on a screen with only about 800 pixels of width to spare. SmugMug

I gave the feature a quick test drive, and found that it worked fine and with snappy performance. I liked it a lot better than Flickr's options, which involve clicking on an "all sizes" button then on again to select one of a handful of preset options--and worse, doing so moves you away from a the page where you do anything interesting such as read comments or click through a user's photo collection. Google's Picasa Web Albums, though, offer images that scale automatically according to available real estate, but I find the interface much more cluttered than SmugMug's.

Previously, users had to manually select different photo sizes with tabs that popped up over the image. "It's safe to say those links will be going away. When you click on image, you can still manually switch sizes if you want, but we're pretty good picking the size for your particular screen resolution," MacAskill said.

The other half of the SmugMug change is the addition of H.264 video streaming, a much more modern standard than the MPEG-1 technology earlier supported. "Our video support before was just terrible," MacAskill said.

Moving to the new standard opens up video viewing options including Sony's PlayStation 3, Apple's iPhone and iPod, Apple Quicktime software, and shortly, Web browsers with Adobe Systems' widely used Flash software. The newest version of Flash, released this week, supports H.264, but Smugmug is "not quite done with our player," he said.

As with the photos, the video also scales automatically according to screen size. The highest resolution is high-definition 1280x720 video, but I had to actively select that option to override the site's preference for a smaller size; the sliver of screen real estate lost even to narrow window frames around the video was enough to lower my 1280x1024 monitor's usable width below 1280. MacAskill said the company might adjust that behavior.

MacAskill wouldn't offer predictions about how the new features would directly affect the company beyond offering, "I imagine some users may upgrade to power users so they can get video." However, he said the upgrade is in line with the company's core strategy to keep customers happy so they'll keep paying the mandatory subscription fees and recommend the site to others.

Customer satisfaction is crucial because the company depends on word of mouth for its marketing, supplemented only by Google advertising. So far the formula has worked: SmugMug has been profitable since its founding in 2002, and annual revenue has grown beyond $10 million, MacAskill said. Unusually for a Silicon Valley company, the company hasn't given an ownership stake to outside investors in return for money to fund the business during its early stages.

MacAskill hired the company's second employee, his father, Chris MacAskill, and started the company "basically as a side project so afford to buy ramen and corn flakes," he said. "We took three servers from an old company, bummed some data center space off a buddy, threw some code together, and crossed our fingers."

The company now is up to 29 employees--including MacAskill's two brothers, mother, sister, and aunt--and stores more than 225 million photos.