Why Google Photos Matters to Developers


Google is pulling out all the stops to grow its ecosystem, thereby improving its allure to developers.

The consensus was unanimous as the trade press exited the Google I/O 2015 keynote and traded perceptions with each other: For a developer event, there sure were a lot of nondeveloper announcements. As Google paraded one exec and engineer after another on stage to reveal what exactly was new from their part of the Google-verse, some announcements appeared to lack a developer angle altogether.

For example, backed by deep neural network-driven image recognition (used to automate photo organization without user-applied tags) and free unlimited storage for high-def photos and video, Google Photos (available immediately) looked and sounded great. Developer or not, you couldn't help but cheer at its brilliance, especially given its availability to users of both Android and iOS. According to Google:

Google Photos gives you a single, private place to keep a lifetime of memories, and access them from any device. They’re automatically backed up and synced, so you can have peace of mind that your photos are safe, available across all your devices.

And when we say a lifetime of memories, we really mean it. With Google Photos, you can now back up and store unlimited, high-quality photos and videos, for free. We maintain the original resolution up to 16 MP for photos, and 1080p high-definition for videos, and store compressed versions of the photos and videos in beautiful, print-quality resolution.

While we hold our breath waiting for both Apple and Amazon to respond (neither can take the free nature of the announcement lying down), and investors try to figure who Google will buy all that hard disk capacity from (or, if Google is in possession of some undisclosed alien storage technology that can fit a petabyte into a pencil eraser), one obvious question to ask is whether there will be an API for Google Photos. After all, there's one for Google Picasa. And while we're at it, a nondeveloper question: What does Google Photos mean for the future of Picasa?

Via email, a company spokeswoman told ProgrammableWeb that there are "no current plans for an API, but this is just v1 of the Photos app. There is definitely more to come." Regarding Picasa, she said, "Picasa continues to be part of our overall Photos offering, and we’ve worked hard to make sure that almost everything you do in Picasa is compatible with Google Photos. For the Google Photos launch, we focused primarily on mobile use cases and building a beautiful, intuitive experience on these devices."

So, with no API (yet), why might Google's Photos announcement be relevant to developers now? The answer lies in the improved end-user attraction to the Google ecosystem. Culturally, Google isn't known for drawing attention to how it's faring in its battle with Apple for world dominance. But there are subtle references. From the Google I/O keynote stage, senior vice president of products Sundar Pichai reminded attendees that Android is the operating system behind eight out of every 10 smartphones sold (globally). The other two are undoubtedly iOS, and like any fierce competitor, Google isn't resting on its laurels. It's gunning for nine out of 10. Or maybe even 10.

Going back to the beginning of digital time, developers have always been the key to ecosystem dominance. Winning more developers while keeping existing ones, as both Apple and Google are wont to do, means convincing developers that their respective platforms are the Platform of choice for end users and therefore the best (big, juicy and potentially lucrative) market opportunity for any apps. More users means more developers. More developers means more apps. More apps means more users. It's a vicious cycle.

And this is where Google Photos is now one of the arrows in Google's quiver. By offering free unlimited storage of high-def images and video, Google has dramatically turned up the heat on Apple. Although this is hardly projectable, several people told me that the offer was enough to immediately win them over to Google Photos and that all that was left to do was figure out how to migrate all their stuff (currently scattered across various services, computers, mobile devices, etc.). In their heads, even though it wasn't necessary due to Google's cross-platform support, it was finally time to consider an Android phone too.

Now, if this was Microsoft (or, at the very least, the old Microsoft), the company would shoot itself in the foot by attaching strings to such an announcement. You'd have to buy something based on Windows to get Google Photos. But Google is wisely taking baby steps, playing the long game. It's not forcing users to choose between Android and iOS. Instead, Google is making Photos available on iOS too. Google is saying, "Go ahead, take your pictures and video on the iPhone. Just store them with us. For free." In so doing, Google is increasing the chances of adoption by Apple loyalists while also getting a foot in the door with them.

Although Google will do its best to deliver a great User Experience across the two platforms, it will be better on Android and the things it connects to (like Android Wear). Eventually, some users of Google Photos on iOS will be compelled to move. It might not be their phones at first. Perhaps a Google- (or Brillo-) based smart TV, picture frame, or something else that's photo or video capable. Google's sphere of influence will expand and, as a result, more developers will be drawn to it like moths to light. Even if they start by building iOS apps that work with the Google Photos API. It's not available yet. But it will be, and when it is, that'll be just another foot in the door.

Be sure to read the next Photos article: Unsplash Opens Entire Stock Photo Library via Two APIs