Picasa Web Albums, the Point?

I like Google, I like their philosphy, and I thought I knew their business model. Google changed Sun’s slogan “the network is the computer” into “the web is the computer”. One step at a time they’re replacing desktop applications with web applications, making money from content-based advertising. If you are reading an e-mail from your favourite mailing list “elephant’s digest” you would get ads for the zoo, if you read dirty stories you would get ads for porn websites and so on. This is the Google business model. This what made them big, this is what made them profitable.

Essentially they offer all their services and software for free and make money from non-intrusive advertising. That’s great. That’s what I like. That’s what people like.

There were some acquisitions that Google made that I didn’t really see fit into its model. Most notably Picasa, which was acquired a year or maybe two ago and more recently: Sketchup. Both very nice pieces of software, no doubt about it, but both desktop applications that seem to have little to do with Google’s core business: getting your data on their servers and allowing you to do interesting things with it.

Two days ago Google launched a closed beta of Google Picasa Web Albums. First of all that’s a strange name. Not a Googlesque name. Google gives their services straightforward names like Google Mail (ok fine… Gmail), Google Blog Search, Google Spreadsheets, Google Reader, Google Video and Google Calendar. Why isn’t this just called Google Albums? Or Google Photo?

It turns out the service is called that because it’s like a web add-on of the Picasa photo management application. This seems strange to me. Usually they create web applications first and then have a small, simple client-side application that does something they otherwise couldn’t easily do. Like the Gmail notifier or Google Video Uploader. They don’t create web add-ons for desktop applications, well until now, apparently.

From the announcement:

Reading feedback from Picasa users is one of the best parts of my job. And lately the feedback has been especially clear and direct: please offer an easy way to share photos online.

And I guess that’s what they did, but before I continue, let me give you some impressions of what it looks like:

You can have a look and play around a bit in my public Picasa albums.

There is a lot to like about Google Picasa Web Albums. First of all it’s basic. The interface is clean and easy to use. I really like using the left and right arrow keys to flip through the pictures while they’re being pre-fetched in the background. I really like the use of AJAX everwhere where Google is famous for. I really like the slideshows. And this is a small thing, but I really like that photos don’t have captions by default (like flickr does by using its filename, which usually with me is not very descriptive). I also like how easy it is to upload your albums from Picasa.

But still I’m disappointed and I don’t get it.

What I had expected from Google is a flickr killer. Basically a full photo management application replacement. Flickr allows you to do simple image manipulations (rotation), and Picasa Web Albums allows you to do this too, but why stop there? Why not red-eye removal, cropping of pictures? What I had expected was a simple photo upload program, like flickr uploadr, and for the rest everything on the web. But Picasa Web Albums is not that.

But there’s something much more important about it that I didn’t mention before. I mentioned that Google is all about the data. Gmail gives you about 2.7GB of e-mail storage right now. Generally Google is about the seemingly infinite storage and recently people have been talking Google maybe wanting to take in all of your files, unlimited storage for all.

But then I read through announcement and saw this:

Finally, you may be wondering if this costs anything. No, and no hidden fees either. Picasa is free as always, and Picasa Web Albums comes with 250MB of free storage space. That’s enough for approximately 1,000 wallpaper-sized photos at 1600 pixels each. We also offer an easy-to-understand storage upgrade option if you have a whole lot more pictures to share.

Huh? 250MB storage space? Is this a joke? And this is not a 250MB/month upload limit (like flickr’s 20MB upload limit for free accounts), this is a hard limit. All your photos together can only be 250MB. That’s not a lot, that’s very little actually. So it’s not really photo storage then, it really is just for sharing a couple of pictures with friends. I let Picasa resize my pictures to 1024×768 before uploading them for this reason. It’s not at all like flickr, which I use as a safe store for my pictures. And that’s strange. Google is the storage company. They handle data and lots of it. But yet they limit the amount of pictures you have to 250MB.

But you can upgrade, and that’s another interesting thing, to 6GB of storage for $25 per year. Again, this is a hard limit, not 6GB/year, just 6GB for always. But not even considering if this is a good deal or not, there is something very significant happening here.

Google is charging for their services.

That is the first time in Google’s history I think and I sincerely wonder why. Is there no money to be made from picture sharing? Probably there is, flickr was bought by Yahoo for millions. Comments, captions, tags all can help you to target ads. Maybe interesting things with picture recognition can be done to target ads on the picture’s content (they should acquire Riya, that would be an acquisition that would make sense).

Why this sudden change of business model? Why?

I don’t get it.

(Digg this story.)