Actually, we do need more photo sharing apps

3 reasons why Facebook, Apple or Google won’t solve the photo sharing problem alone

Last week I was on FaceTime with my grandfather. He was trying to show me pictures of my (adorable!) baby cousin that he had taken on his Android phone.

So naturally, he held the phone up to the iPad camera and started swiping through them. In the background, my grandmother yelled out. “What are you doing? Just send them to him on the WhatsApp.”

With the number of brilliant minds working on photo sharing today, I wish I had made this story up. I didn’t.

He did end up sending them to me on WhatsApp and then messaged me on Google Talk to make sure I got them. This isn’t a story of how the older generation doesn’t know how to use technology. I have very technically savvy grandparents.

In fact, if you’d have asked me how I would have solved that problem, my best solution would be to email them to me.

But wait! Why didn’t he just use the automatic upload to Google+ albums?

But wait! Why didn’t he sync it to his computer and put them in a Dropbox folder?

Because he just wanted to show me some pictures.

Now I know that this is starting to sound like the beginning of a bad startup pitch, but it’s illustrative of a few fundamental problems with the current approaches to photo-sharing.

The 5 types of photo services

Photo services can be broken down into five primary use-cases. Many products offer a mix of functionality, but no app leads in every single area. We’ll discuss why later.

(1) Store photos for yourself

When cameras required film, we took fewer photos but still ended up with stacks of glossy paper that we had to put somewhere. Now we’ve got more photo files than we know what to do with.

Analog: Shoeboxes, Photo albums (if you were organized)

Digital: Phones and laptops (if you’re not worried about losing data), Dropbox, Google Drive

(2) Edit photos

Editing wasn’t something people did often with physical photos, but luckily technology is here to rescue us from our flaws.

Analog: Scissors, Darkroom chemicals

Digital: Instagram, VSCO, Camera+

(3) Send someone a photo

Sending photos used to be reserved for very special occasions like a yearly Christmas card, now its a new form of everyday communication.

Analog: Print doubles of your photo and give someone a copy

Digital: Email, SMS, Whatsapp

(4) Show someone a photo

Showing someone a photo is different than sending someone a photo. They get to see it, but they don’t get to keep it. This allows for more candid self-expression.

Analog: Visit in-person and flip through albums

Digital: Snapchat, Slingshot, Taptalk

(5) Broadcast your photos

Broadcasting is a lot harder in the physical world because you have to be physically present. The internet makes it easy for people to broadcast in a number of different ways.

Analog: Hang photos on the wall, submit to a photo contest

Digital: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Flickr, Exposure

Build the ecosystem before unifying it

The sheer number of photo services being released illustrates that we’re not done with the experimentation phase of digital photography. Now isn’t the time to try to unify the ecosystem. It is the time to try out new ideas to continue to improve and grow it.

Its hard to build a product that does five things well.

It’s easy to build a product that assumes the user has fully bought into your ecosystem. In theory, both Google+ and Facebook combine each of the five types services above. But they have the unrealistic assumption that you and every single person you interact with is using their service for each use case.

Dropbox is a great product because it does one thing well. We’ll see better products in the photo space if there are more services built around specific use-cases.

Additionally, each of these use cases presents a fairly different technical and product challenge. A team that builds a great photo storage product may not have the same skills needed to build a great photo editor.

More experimentation will create better products.

There’s no way we’ve discovered the best solution for any of the five types of services. And there are many combinations of these services that haven’t been explored yet.

There have been a lot of services in the “Broadcast your photos” space but we’re just starting to see companies explore the “Show someone a photo” space. There is room for iteration in every area.

The near-ubiquity of phones with cameras means that there are more people than ever who are potential testers for these new services. There has been no better time to experiment.

Draw ideas for unification from clever user behavior.

Instead of starting with a one size fits all service, a grand unifying standard or an open API protocol, we can look at what users are doing to figure out ways to combine (and separate) these types of services.

For example, people use screenshots to edit a photo on Instagram without publicly posting it. Since Snapchat can’t send existing photos, people take pictures of pictures. Clearly, there are use cases that current services don’t address.

Rather than force users to fully buy into a single ecosystem, we can make it easier for them to do what they’re doing naturally.


Obviously, photos aren’t a matter of life or death. But they do help capture memories and share stories. They’re a form of communication that nearly everyone can partake in.

I’m not dismissive of photo apps. Each innovation is an improvement to the ecosystem of digital photography. The end goal isn’t to have hundreds of different services, but more experimentation in the short term will create a faster pace of improvement.

Adding up all these improvements will make it so that next time you want to show someone a photo — you can just show someone a photo.

Pictures say 1000 words, find mine on Instagram: @iyengar

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