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Google yanks tool for advanced online photo editing

As the company trumpets Google Photos' new abilities for archiving and sharing photos, it also quietly drops a sophisticated tool for editing them.

Google Photos offers useful but basic editing tools, a change from the more sophisticated options it previously offered to browser-based photo adjustments.
Google Photos offers useful but basic editing tools, a change from the more sophisticated options it previously offered to browser-based photo adjustments. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

As Google launched its new photo service last week, it also dropped a sophisticated tool that had significantly advanced online photo-editing technology.

Google debuted the earlier online photo-editing tool in 2013 as part of the photos section of its Google+ social-networking service. That tool, based on the software Google got through its Snapseed acquisition, included editing options like "control points" that selectively adjusted particular regions. It wasn't Adobe Systems' Photoshop, but it was pretty powerful -- and pretty impressive given the limits of browser-based software.

Now that Google Photos is a standalone service cut loose from Google+, the editing tool has been pared back to a more basic set of options including cropping, rotating, adjusting exposure, adding some contrast "pop," tweaking color intensity and adding filter effects.

"We went back to the drawing board and built an editor that we believe is incredibly powerful yet simple," said Anil Sabharwal, head of photo work at Google.

Google's change shows that even with major players active for years, photography in the modern digital era is still a hotly competitive area that hasn't settled down. There may be dominant companies in online search, social networking and e-commerce, but handling your photos remains up for grabs.

Why? The technology keeps changing. A decade ago, Adobe Photoshop was the center of the universe when it came to handling digital photographs, but mobile devices and online services have blasted the market wide open.

Yahoo Flickr is vying to keep enthusiasts from straying to newer competitors like 500px, Google Photos wants to lure the mainstream with unlimited storage for photos up to 16 megapixels, and Facebook and its Instagram division have injected a social element to photography publishing that gets pictures to the audience most likely to be interested. And phones, with cameras and networks built in, mean photos are part of the communication of the moment, not archival documents to be carefully processed and filed away for posterity.

Web-based photo editing

Given the technical prowess in Google's earlier photo editing approach, you might think fans of Web apps would be sad to see the feature pushed aside. But in fact, just the opposite is true.

That's because Google's earlier photo-editing tool required a nonstandard Google technology called Native Client that only works on Google's Chrome browser. The new editing approach ultimately will work for a broader set of users.

Google's earlier photo editing tools, based on the company's Snapseed software, let people perform local controls like selecting just one portion of an image to make changes.
Google's earlier photo-editing tool, based on the company's Snapseed software, let people perform local controls like selecting just one portion of an image to make changes. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google "wanted to deliver a consistent user experience across all platforms, and for the Web, across all browsers," Sabharwal said. "This means many of the higher-end editing capabilities are not there."

But it means it works not just on Chrome, but on Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari, Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Edge, Opera Software's Opera, and any number of other browsers. And although Google offers a Google Photos app for mobile devices, the new software in principle works on mobile versions of those browsers, too.

That's because it uses newer, more advanced Web technologies like WebGL for graphics processing that can tap into a computer's graphics chip to accelerate the computation that underlies filter effects and other photo editing changes.

Native Client offers high performance. It gives programmers a way to move software designed to run natively on a particular operating system over to the Web -- running at nearly the speed as the original native version. However, while Google has pushed Native Client for years, no other browser has adopted it, and some have been outright hostile. They'd rather see improvements to the Web's current programming foundation, JavaScript.

Chrome is popular -- indeed, it's the most used browser according to analytics service StatCounter -- but hundreds of millions of people use other browsers. Chrome isn't even an option on some devices, like smartphones running BlackBerry OS, Microsoft Windows Phone or Firefox OS.

Do you really want to edit?

Google Photos' browser-based editing tools offer the same set of adjustable filters.
Google Photos' browser-based editing tools offer the same set of adjustable filters. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

And it's not clear that people really wanted new advanced photo tools, online or otherwise.

Casual users more often want to get to the business of sharing their photos. In contrast, photography enthusiasts likely already have advanced software on their personal computers. For those who want more on their phones, the Google Photos app for Android and iOS can hand off photos to Google's Snapseed app by tapping the three-dot icon that opens a menu of options.

Google isn't the only one trying to find the right approach to modern photo editing. In May, Adobe deleted its earlier Photoshop Touch app for smartphones as it prepares to make a start fresh with mobile photo-editing software.

Google's online photo editing tools will change more in the future, too.

"This is just the start," Sabharwal said. "We definitely plan to continue to evolve the editor."