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Google Photos: How big a threat to Apple?

Gregg Keizer | June 5, 2015
CEO Tim Cook makes plain that Apple won't compete, at least on one level

True. "Largess" and "iCloud" aren't usually in the same sentence, even after an Apple price cut last year.

Apple could, theoretically, boost its free photo-storage allowance to match Google, or at least narrow the gap. But that's not likely because Apple works from a different motivation than Google on this, and almost every other, level. Everything done by Apple is part of the drive to sell devices. At Google, that's not the case. Google starts with advertising and works back: What improves advertising is good.

"Google Photos won't directly threaten the iPhone," said Gottheil. "As far as photographic technology's concerned, the iPhone has as good a camera as you can get. It'll do as the front end to Google Photos just fine."

To a certain degree, Gottheil's right. But Apple, like any platform maker, would rather keep its users engaged in its own circle of apps, not those of a rival. Two years ago, it made that clear when it launched, to some initial ridicule, its own Maps, swapping that for Google's, which got the boot.

"I think they need to counter, if only by continuing to improve the experience," said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of U.S. business for Kantar WorldPanel Comtech. "The last thing Apple wants is customers using an iPhone and not linking to Apple's services. Customers like that are less engaged, and the barrier to switch [to another device platform] is lower for them."

That's particularly true of photographs, with their strong emotional resonance. Apple uses photos in its ads for good reason, to connect its iPhone to customers' emotions -- make them cherish the object because they cherish what it produces. Lose the link, give iPhone owners more justification to desert to Google's ecosystem, and the attachment to the device weakens.

That's the theory anyway.

Apple could boost the amount of free storage space for photos, but that's the least of its problems competing with Google here.

"The biggest difference is that Google Photos really feels like it's a cloud-first product. Apple Photos has to be resident on a device first," pointed out Dawson, echoing Gottheil's commentary about Apple's poor standing in the cloud, one the latter called "lame."

Because that difference plays to each company's strength -- again, Apple's rationale for what it does is to sell devices, and services are secondary at best -- it's unlikely that Apple can match Google Photos in the area even more important than storage space.

"The automatic organization [of Google Photos] is much more significant," asserted Dawson. "The big unmet in photos is finding them. Image recognition has to be really smart." He was dubious Apple would, or could, venture into that territory on a competitive level with Google, whose mission is to capture as much information as possible, and has the machine learning chops to do it.


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