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Social Folders: It's Photo Stream for everything

You have to try this great new service that mirrors all the photos you post online to your hard disk.

Social Folders is one of the most potentially useful new services I've seen in a while. It's software for your PC or Mac that connects to your online social accounts and automatically mirrors new files you post online back to your hard disk.

Apple Photo Stream users know how this goes: you take a picture with your mobile device, and then later, when you're back at your computer, there it is, automatically. You don't have to transfer the image manually, you don't have to worry about copying it off your mobile, and if you have a backup service running on your computer, now you don't have to worry about losing the file, either. It's great.

Social Folders does this for images and video you put on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, and YouTube, no matter where they come from (like a mobile app). It also automatically downloads files from Google Docs and Box.net. An update coming out today adds Twitter and Smugmug. CEO Philippe Honigman told me that Evernote and SkyDrive support is in the works. Google+ will follow once there's an API.

Social Folders takes files and photos from several services and syncs them to your hard disk. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

I tried it out, and it worked with mixed results. First, what I liked: on my computer, I got a new "my Social Folders" directory in the main documents folder, and in it I saw folders for the online services I had configured. In each of those, more folders (for example, in Facebook, I got Wall Photos, Personal Photos, and so on) and then my files.

All these files got stored on my computers (I had two set up), and I could use them in any app. I found you can also drag files between online services as if the services were local on your computer. For example, if you want a Flickr photo in your Google Docs, or a Picasa photo (or entire album) in Facebook, it's really easy. This is very cool, and could be very handy for sharing pictures you've put on one service with a friend network on another. (Files from Google Docs are stored in local, native formats: .doc for word processing files, .xls for spreadsheets.)

The issues: the worst problem I had was that Social Folders re-uploaded eight photos to Facebook that I had posted months ago, giving them new datestamps and making them look like they were new. I'm not sure if this was a bug, a configuration issue with my computers, or some other user error. But I was surprised to find my Facebook photo stream this morning not the way I left it last night, and I did not like it at all.

Smaller problems included the fact that it did not pick up a YouTube video and that you can't (yet) configure it for multiple log-ins per account (if you have two Flickr accounts, for example, you can only set up one). It also can be slow (a few minutes) to pick up changes in online accounts. Finally, there's no mobile app for access to your files.

The product has been in limited beta for a few months, but today's open release also adds the capability to subscribe to friends' social accounts. So if you want all your best friend's Facebook photos stored forever on your hard disk, now you can get them. (I experimented with the old version of the app, not this new one.)

Social Folders frees your pictures from the confines of online services. If you ever worry about Instagram going away and taking your pictures with it, use this. Or if you want to be sure you always have access to your Google Docs files, even when you're offline, again, this is an answer. (In the new version of the product, changes are mirrored back to the online source as a new revision when you connect again).

Backupify also backs up cloud documents, but it stores everything on its own servers. Social Folders pulls your files onto the computers you own.

Social Folders works on the freemium model. It's free to use for up to 500 files and with three services. A $9.99 annual subscription gets you 5,000 synced files and access to all the services. (Social Folders can charge a low yearly fee because it doesn't store files on its own servers.)

Unfortunately, I'm not sure it's a great business. I don't see it as being an easy sell to mainstream consumers since it, technically, doesn't give you access to anything you can't already get (just in a much more roundabout fashion). And as I've written before, the old model of having consumers manage files is going to die eventually. It's already waning: most mobile apps handle their own data storage and current mobile devices don't have consumer-usable file systems. I do think Social Folders would be a terrific acquisition candidate for Dropbox or even, perhaps, Evernote.

With some additional features and bug fixes (which today's release may incorporate), this could be a really good product. It is a great way to take all the photos and files you've farmed out to social sites and put them back together in one place again. I hope it gets improved and is around for a long time.

Rafe's rating: Social Folders

  • Product quality: Three out of five stars. Handy tool that gives you one place to access all the files you post to (several) online social sites. I found some issues, and it needs more setup flexibility and a mobile app. But still very useful and has a ton of promise.
  • Business quality: Three out of five. Likely a very difficult consumer pitch. But could be tasty acquisition for another company already established in the online storage or sync space.
Note on the Rafe's Rating scores: These are solely my opinions, informed by my experience reviewing consumer technology products and covering startup companies over the last 20+ years.