Out of Room: Why iCloud needs a new photo storage solution
Though traditional computer users—particularly tech-savvy ones—tend to take massive hard drives for granted, the shift to iOS devices with limited, flash-based storage has had an unintended but predictable consequence: people are running out of storage space. Music collections and movie collections aren’t the biggest problem; instead, it’s photo libraries, which continue to grow thanks to ever-improving cameras and the popularity of documenting everything, including meals, baby steps and funny things that happen in public or private. There are millions of memories to capture with a camera that’s always in your pocket, but if you’re not backing up everything on a computer, eventually running out of space is guaranteed. As more people adopt a “post-PC” lifestyle, the question of where and how to store iPhone, iPad, and other self-recorded content is going to become increasingly important. We’d like to propose an answer: iPhoto in the Cloud.
Years ago, the thought of carrying around precious memories on a device that could be easily lost, stolen, or dropped didn’t appeal to many people. Yet as soon as those same people started taking photos with the iPhone’s built-in camera, it became obvious that Apple’s cell phone would one day become an important photographic tool—and as the cameras became better, it was apparent to more people that these weren’t just throwaway images; frequent backups would be necessary to ensure the worthwhile photos were safe. Today, Apple users have 5- and 8-megapixel cameras, HD video recording, and iPads that can import huge photos taken with even more advanced, dedicated cameras. They also have ever-growing Camera Rolls that demand added storage space, the only major non-computer solution for which is iCloud. If you own an iPad and an iPhone and rely upon iCloud for backups, the odds are pretty high that you’ll need to upgrade your storage based on photo storage alone—Photo Stream doesn’t count against your free storage allotment, but photo backups do—and using iCloud for either temporary or permanent photo storage isn’t ideal. Some users might manually go through and delete unwanted images to save space, but over time, those libraries are going to get bigger and more unmanageable.
Eventually, a large library will push any iOS device to the limits of its storage management capabilities. Our editors often purchase Apple’s most capacious devices, but many of us have been forced at times to delete videos and or apps from a device just to create enough space so it can update apps—an unpleasant chore even for people familiar with iOS storage management, and a potential nightmare for common users. The problem is only made worse by Apple’s adoption of over-the-air Software Updates in iOS 5; iOS devices untethered from iTunes now require free space at times, and if you’re not using a backup computer, your only solution is to get rid of content to make space.
At the same time, the world of online photo sharing is in upheaval. Once unstoppable services like Flickr are seeing increased competition from social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and others, and Apple’s prior solution, MobileMe Gallery, is preparing to close down for good. So it stands to reason that Apple could easily kill two birds with one stone, either by building its own new photo sharing service—which would double as an online repository for all your iOS-synced photos—or by purchasing an existing solution, such as Flickr. Yes, that sounds crazy at first, particularly as Apple has been reluctant to make large acquisitions in the past. But Yahoo! is in the midst of a massive restructuring, and a purchase of Flickr by Apple would be far more feasible than it might have seemed a few years ago. Regardless of whether it fits with Apple’s past acquisition strategies, it would be a great move for the company, and for users.
Ideally, such a solution would be deeply integrated into iOS itself, allowing users to keep a certain subset of photos on their device, with the rest accessible from iCloud via built-in controls—see the “load more photos” button in the Instagram and Flickr apps for an example. These same cloud-based photo libraries could be integrated into iPhoto and Aperture on the Mac, providing similar functionality to the current Photo Stream feature but without the need to download each and every photo to local storage, and without the pesky 1,000-photo limitation. The libraries could even be accessed via web browser, should Apple decide to provide a HTML front-end for the service, letting users share their latest shots with a simple link instead of a full image upload. In effect, the service would be iPhoto in the Cloud, complementing the existing iTunes in the Cloud offerings, removing the next-largest storage concern from the discussion, and giving users more room for apps and other content.
Apple is keen on steering users into a post-PC future—and dominating it—but given the importance of photography to iOS users, it’s clear that a solution is needed for this particular issue. You can’t move into the post-PC future without a PC replacement to back up and manage your pictures; iPhoto in the Cloud would be the most sensible alternative.
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