Paul Gilster: Google offers compelling new service for backing up photos

Making something searchable changes the way we use it. One of the reasons why Google’s Gmail is now reporting 900 million users is that keeping track of messages is reduced to plugging in search terms for a quick readout of the result. Can we do something similar with images? Among several interesting announcements at the recent Google I/O summit is Google Photos, a major upgrade to a feature that had been tied to Google+.

In fact, the new Google Photos breaks definitively from its Google+ heritage by allowing users to share photos with a variety of social media outlets whether they’re using Android, iOS or the Web. And pay attention to its use of the cloud. These days we’re getting used to storing photos online, which is how I keep backups of my photos. I started with DropBox (which backs up my phone automatically) and then added Amazon, which gives unlimited free backup as long as you’re a member of Amazon Prime.

Apple offers you 5 GB of storage for photos as well, though you pay for any space beyond that limit. But Google Photos arrives with a compelling offer. It doesn’t care whether I’m using an iPhone or an Android device, and it offers free, unlimited cloud backup for all of my pictures, with a maximum resolution of 16 megapixels. If you often work with higher resolutions, you can get 15 GB of free storage or pay $1.99 a month for 100 GB.

Image recognition

So the options are out there, but Google wants to make its cloud backup service compelling by taking advantage of services that live in the cloud along with your photos. I don’t take a huge number of pictures but even with my relatively limited efforts, I find navigating through the collection to find specific shots a tricky proposition. The new Google Photos is all about doing things like searching for identifying features and letting the software find them.

This isn’t tagging – you don’t have to stop to catalog your photos so they can be easily found. This is image recognition. Ask to see beach photos and beach photos are what you see. A search for hamburgers pulls up last summer’s party by the pool and its charcoal grill. The program learns the kind of places you like to photograph and the objects that most often draw your attention: trains, bridges, rivers. It also learns the people you photograph the most.

Google’s face detection can track your interactions with someone over months and years of stored images, although the software will not supply an identity (this is how Google hopes to sidestep inevitable privacy questions). The feature comes into its own with large photo collections, but it’s still rough around the edges. Google Photos is also good at collecting related photographs into collections, giving you fresh views of times and people that you haven’t seen in quite this way before when working with sequences of shots as taken.

Compelling case

Some searches work better than others, and face recognition can be hit or miss. But we’re only beginning the era of photo search and face recognition in apps like this. What’s striking, though, is that it works as well as it does, with technology that can only improve with more user participation, which is how Google builds upon its expertise in the first place.

Are you comfortable having your photos stored in the cloud? Because keeping everything on your phone isn’t necessary when software like this reminds you of how much space you can delete as you near your storage limits. I’m happy enough to use cloud storage, but I also use multiple services in case one provider goes down. Google Photos has made a compelling case to become another such backup, as as search improves, maybe the best of them.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at