Having read a lot (especially on IndieHackers), about people building their startups in public, I am now intrigued enough to give it a shot myself. Over the next few months, I will finally get started with building my next (much delayed) side project, which I have creatively named 'Better Google Photos (BGP)'. In this article, I will explain my issues with Google Photos and why I want to build a better version.
Of late, I have been spending way too much time on the Indie Hackers discussion boards, especially on the Building In Public group, and I have to admit that I've been bitten hard by the Building In Public bug.
Seeing so many people, transparently cataloging their build progress has been quite fascinating. I especially love that Building In Public is not just talking about your build progress, but also over the long run serves to help you build an audience who might be interested in what you are building, while also utilizing that same audience to subtly hold you accountable and push you towards reaching that next milestone on your roadmap.
Considering all this, I recently decided that the next side-project I work on would definitely be built in public. And after putting it off for a long while, I have finally decided to get off my ass, and start working on that next side-project.
So without further ado, let's talk about Better Google Photos!
Google Photos is pretty damned good. Isn't it?
Do you use Google Photos? If you have an Android phone, you almost certainly do. Even otherwise, if you need to store a lot of photos, you've probably given Google Photos a shot. If you haven't yet, you should. It's pretty damned good. Google photos
- Gives you a generous amount of storage.
- Saves a not-very-lossy version of your photos, and can optionally save them in original resolution as well.
- Automatically analyzes your photos with their ML, so you can do cool searches like 'mom' and get all the photos of your mom.
- Offers a pretty good photo gallery and album sharing functionality.
- Does this all for a pretty low monthly price - which for most users is 0 USD.
Sounds pretty great right? And I agree, it's a pretty good piece of software.
So then, why do I think I should build a 'Better Google Photos'? Primarily because of a few issues that I have with Google Photos, that I don't really think will ever be addressed by Google. Let's see what these are.
The Google Photos Android App has terrible UX
My main interaction with Google Photos, is through the Android app. I like to delude myself by considering me a budding amateur phone photographer. As such, one of the tools I use most during my photography sessions, is to take a burst of 15-20 shots of a particular frame, and then pick the one that turns out the best amongst them. I also have this terrible habit of not deleting any pictures I take, out of an irrational fear of accidentally deleting a good shot.
As a result, what usually ends up happening is that my phone gallery is filled with a lot of image bursts. Whenever I want to share a particular image on Whatsapp or upload it to a website, I have to use the Google Photos app to select the image. Unfortunately for me, Google has decided that they will not fit the image into the thumbnail, instead choosing to crop the image to fit the thumbnail. So instead of beeing able to quickly see the differences in each of the images in the burst, I instead see the exact same center of the image repeated 15 times. What makes this worse is that the Google Photos app does not allow you to do a quick, full-size preview of the image before selecting it.
This is extremely poor UI which has resulted in me having to delete and pick a different image countless number of times, always cursing under my breath, and swearing that even I could do a better job at making a photo picker.
Bad File Management UI
Apart from it's shortcomings in the gallery view, and as a file picker, Google Photos, on both web and the Android app are terrible for file management. It's difficult to select a large number of files, impossible to sort files by anything other than time taken, and on the android app it is impossible to find out how many photos are in an album. In short, if you need to do any kind of album/directory management/cleanup on Google Photos, you are going to have a hard time.
Inconsistent Photo Storage Formats
I like to save the photos I take in Original Quality, and as such I pay a decent amount of money for extra storage to make this possible. My most common interaction with Google Photos is via the Android app, and on the Android app I have opted for photos to be saved in Original Quality.
About a month ago, I was backing up some recently rediscovered pics from my laptop to Google Photos, via the webapp, when I noticed a difference between the on-disk file size, and the additional storage used up after the upload. After spending a few hours deleting and re-uploading the pics, and writing a script to make sure that all the files were actually present, I finally stumbled upon the reason for the discrepancy.
Turns out, the setting to upload photos in Original Quality was specific to the Android app, and my preference did not get carried over to the webapp, where it had to be set again. After changing the webapp settings to also use Original Quality, the upload size difference disappeared. This is again terrible UX. If I hadn't noticed this, and deleted the on-disk backup, I would have lost the HQ images forever. A photo backup solution, for me, should be something I can blindly trust, and not something I have to keep double checking to see that it's not stabbed be in the back.
Possible Privacy Issues
Google Photos does a lot of cool things with machine learning. It scans all of your photos, and then identifies the objects and the people in those photos, which then allows you to do cool stuff like search for "lake" and then see all the pictures of lakes that you took. Cool, right?
I thought it was cool until a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago, I was going through the Google Photos app, and I was looking through the photos of my 5 year old nephew. Google Photos had accurately identified his photos going back to the time he was only a few months old. Initially I was impressed, but then the more I thought about it, the more it unsettled me that such a powerful machine learning algorithm was going through every single photo that I uploaded.
I think not much prevents Google from starting to use the information it gleans from scanning my photos to start targeting advertisements at me. Google is the world's largest internet advertising company, and they have a duty towards trying to extract as much data about it's users as possible, in order to turn around and use that data to target ads towards those users. And as such, I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with feeding Google all of this information about me and my loved ones.
Opaque Customer Support
By far my biggest fear about using Google Photos, is that one day I would wake up and see that Google has unilaterally decided to suspend my account. Thanks to their infamously opaque customer support process, where, unless you personally know someone working at Google, it is almost impossible to reach anybody but a robot, which will give you the same form replies over and over again, I am quite certain I would never be able to gain access to the account again, and even if I do, there is no guarantee that my photos will not have been purged by then.
So far, I am working around this by having on-disk backups, but I would much rather not have to maintain a shelf full of external hard disks, just to store my photos. I would prefer to have a trusted cloud backup instead.
Ergo, Better Google Photos
Seeing my nephews photos being accurately identified by Google even with the large amount of facial changes he has been undergoing as a fast growing kid, has shocked me out of my uneasy comfort with Google Photos. I investigated a few alternatives, but most of them seem to have the same UX issues as Google Photos, and besides, it's been a while since I worked on an interesting side-project, so I decided to build a Better Google Photos myself.
In the next few articles, I intend to talk about the design of the entire service, and how I will be addressing the issues that I have with Google Photos. But before then I really need to find a better name for this thing. So if you have any suggestions, feel free to drop a comment below.
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Until the next article in this series, goodbye!