Bradley Horowitz Says That Google Photos is Gmail for Your Images. And That Google Plus Is Not Dead.

An interview with Google’s head of Streams, Photos and Sharing

To Bradley Horowitz, Google Photos is not just another product. It’s a culmination of 25 years of his work in processing images. Horowitz — who is Google’s Vice President of Streams, Photos, and Sharing — first studied computer vision in grad school and later dropped out to co-found a company in the field, Virage. In the late 1990s, when Horowitz worked at Yahoo, he was the executive behind the purchase of Flickr. And he has been involved with Google’s previous photo apps at various times in his seven years at the company. But Google Photos is the big one, the strongest push yet for the company that rules search to extend its dominance to the images you shoot incessantly from your phone and camera.

“Google’s been into photos for a long time, but this is the first time we have launched a standalone product built from the ground up,” he says.

Google Photos, announced today at its I/O conference, is important for another another reason to Horowitz. It is a clear signal of the way the company is rethinking its controversial social service, Google Plus. While the previous photo service lived in G+, this one is, as mentioned above, standalone. (This breaking-out-of-Plus process also happened earlier with Google Hangouts.)

The move is indicative of how Google has lowered the temperature on the social fever that undertook it a few years ago. On its launch in 2011, Google Plus was touted as the innovation that would compensate for the search giant’s long neglect of “people.” (Thus opening the door to competition from companies like Facebook.) At one point, Larry Page even set the bonus structure for all Google employees on the company’s success in the social sphere. Horowitz was a co-founder of Plus, but he was second-in-command to the other co-founder, Vic Gundotra. Only this year was Horowitz put in charge — to oversee its transition to a less prominent place in the Google pantheon. It is significant that his title describes activities and does not include the word “plus,” which is still used in the company, but in a much more minus fashion than in its heyday.

Google Photos faces extraordinary competition from the likes of Apple, Flickr, and any number of storage services, but the company has diligently leveraged its strengths to produce a product it hopes users will view as a visual equivalent to Gmail: a standalone free service with a premium option for more, super high res, storage. (You store all you like in normal resolution.) It has the requisite functions of editing and, also as one might expect, allows for sharing on social sites. Using pinch and zoom functions, it’s easy to target specific clusters of images. But perhaps the most impressive aspect is its ability to search through a vast collection and automatically collate images by category. It can recognize not only faces, but trees, flowers and birthday parties.

On the eve of the launch of Google Photos, Horowitz spoke to me about the product, as well as the future of Google Plus.

[Steven Levy] There’s a lot of competition from places like Apple, Flickr and even RealNetworks to be someone’s go-to photo service. Why would someone choose Google?

[Bradley Horowitz] We aspire to do for photo management what Gmail did for email management. Gmail wasn’t the first email service. But it offered a different paradigm of how one managed one’s inbox. We want to do that for photo management: To give you enough storage so you can relax and not worry about how much photo bandwidth you’re consuming, and enough organizing power so you don’t have to think about the tedium of managing your digital gallery. It will happen for you transparently, in the background. I don’t think there’s another company on earth that can make that claim.

What problem does Google Photos solve?

We have a proliferation of devices and storage and bandwidth, to the point where every single moment of our life can be saved and recorded. But you don’t get a second life with which to curate, review, and appreciate the first life. You almost need a second vacation to go through the pictures of the safari on your first vacation. That’s the problem we’re trying to fix — to automate the process so that users can be in the moment. We also want to bring all of the power of computer vision and machine learning to improve those photos, create derivative works, to make suggestions…to really be your assistant.

People have their photos on Instagram, Flickr, iPhoto and other services. Do I have to input all my photos in your system to get the most of it?

We believe it’s essential. We think that social photo products are great and we continue to support sharing. Only a small fraction of your photos are actually shared. We heard from our Google Plus photo users that we had great technology, but they didn’t want their life’s archive brought into a social product, any social product. It’s more akin to Gmail — there’s no button on Gmail that says “publish on the Internet.” “Broadcast” and “archive” are really different and so part of Google photos is to create a safe space for your photos and remove any stigma associated with saving everything. For instance, I use my phone to take pictures of receipts, and pictures of signs that I want to remember and things like that. These can potentially pollute my photo stream. We make it so that things like that recede into the background, so there’s no cognitive burden to actually saving everything.

You use artificial intelligence to surface photos on a given theme, or find specific people in the photostream. What’s the percentage of getting it right?

It’s good enough. It’s not perfect, in the same way that voice transcription five years ago was not perfect. The key to getting that last percentage which tips it over will come now, when we deploy it at scale. Getting all that data will create a virtuous cycle of getting better and better.

Do you think you’ll face resistance from people who don’t want a lifetime of photos stored in Google?

I’m not worried about that whatsoever. We have a very good track record. Look at Gmail — its usage has continued to grow. People are very comfortable entrusting their data to Google. If you provide the right user value with no agenda, with no apologies or agendas, I am sure we can win the faith of users.

Is that information in photos siloed, or is that going to be available to enhance my Google experience in other products?

The information gleaned from analyzing these photos does not travel outside of this product — not today. But if I thought we could return immense value to the users based on this data I’m sure we would consider doing that. For instance, if it were possible for Google Photos to figure out that I have a Tesla, and Tesla wanted to alert me to a recall, that would be a service that we would consider offering, with appropriate controls and disclosure to the user. Google Now is a great example. When I’m late for a flight and I get a Google Now notification that my flight has been delayed I can chill out and take an extra hour, breathe deep.

Does the face recognition in this product understand who the person actually is, in the same way your search engine might identify a person and link the image to information about that person?

Not in this incarnation of the product. If you look at the faces we have here Google has no idea who these people are, it’s actually face clustering, not face-recognition, so I can click on my stepdaughter Charlotte and see other pictures of her. But it doesn’t know Charlotte’s identity [and can’t make use of any of her own personal information].

Let’s talk about Google Plus, which you’ve been involved with since its beginning. Where is it going?

Three and a half years into this journey, we’re looking at what the users are telling us Google Plus is good for, and doubling down on those uses. For instance, one particular use-case on Google Plus is people aligning around common interests. If I’m interested in astronomy and I want to meet other people interested in astronomy, we think we have a good solution — Collections, a new feature that we launched just two weeks ago. It’s the first in a series of pivots. We’re also moving aside the things that either belong as independent products, like photos, or eliminating things that we think aren’t working.

What things aren’t going to be there anymore?

I’m not going to divulge the product plans. You can connect a couple of the dots yourself and understand what is working and what isn’t working.

Let’s get back to Collections — can you describe the product?

It’s basically the ability for me to post topically. So if I care about vintage guitars or Tesla, I can take content that I either author myself or find elsewhere on the web, and publish it into those channels. Certainly you’re not going to express your views on astronomy in 140 characters and it’s not necessarily the people I went to camp with in the summer who are also astronomy buffs. Users can subscribe to those places, or not. One problem that Collections solves is, “I like you but I hate when you go on rants about your food.” So I can actually subscribe to you as a person, but uncheck your food collection. Similarly, if all I care about is your food posts but I don’t want to see pictures of you on a family vacation, I can subscribe to that. There needs to be a product that helps unite people around these common, shared interests and then lets them have conversations in complete sentences.

Like… Medium?

You know a lot more about that than I do.

Is it fair to say Google is distancing itself from the original concept of Plus?

It’s fair to say you’re about to see a huge shift in what Plus is becoming. It’s a shift in response to what users are telling us. That’s a very healthy and natural thing. As opposed to sticking to strategies of years ago, we’re actually adapting to how the product is successful in market and doubling-down on that.

Have you ever thought of dropping the name “Plus”?

I’m not sure what that would accomplish. It hasn’t seriously crossed my mind. I think there are product pivots and refinements to what that product actually is. We have been less than clear about who that product is good for and who that product is for and what it’s good for. I think you’re seeing us crisp that up and actually have a much better articulated value proposition so that that becomes very evident to users: what, when and why to use this product.

How successful was Google Plus in understanding who was using Google in general?

It’s created a huge amount of value in creating common identity for users. The Google of 10 years ago was many separate, silo-ed identity and sharing systems. I think we have been successful in unifying that experience for users. And anytime you see a name or a face on Google, our team provides the infrastructure. And it is a service that is provided to all of Google, so whether you’re on search or maps or whatever, this team helps power that service.

At one point people at Google talked about “the perfect stream,” something that would give you everything you needed, from news to personal information. Is that idea still alive?

Horowitz and his dog Rashi. Google Photos unearths lots of Rashi pics — and one cat picture — when he searches for “dog.”

Google’s effort to organize the world’s information includes the concept of our proactively bringing you that information even in advance of a conscious need for it. A great example of that is Google Now: before, I had to remember to ask if my flight is on time. Now, that information finds me. So we’ve already realized that in some of our products. I think that our team, and Google at large, has incredible competency in understanding content and understanding users and marrying those things and delivering that content to users in a proactive, useful way. We don’t necessarily talk about the perfect stream using those words, but we do think a lot about how to bring the right information to the right user at the right time, in the right moment. That is a Google-wide company mission and you’ll see that manifest in every product we have. The service for that is not localized in a particular product, it’s company-level.

Where is Google is going as a social product?

We have made tremendous progress. We’ve done a better job of unifying infrastructure and understanding the concept of “person” at Google. And we have tremendous work ahead of us to really provide the right experiences for our users, so we’re in no way done and we’re in no way backing off of that mission.

[PR Person:] Can you just say it? Say that Google Plus is not dead, please.

OK, let me ask you — is Google Plus dead?

No, Google Plus is not dead. In fact, it’s got more signs of life than it’s had in some time.

Portrait photos courtesy Bradley Horowitz

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