The End of Infinity

Google’s new photo storage policy creates opportunity for operators

Google recently announced a planned change to its photo storage policy, which will soon bring an end to the free, unlimited storage of high-quality images that it offers to users of Google Photos. The change will take effect on 1 June 2021. From this date, images and videos uploaded will count toward users’ allotment of 15GB of free storage that spans Gmail, Google Drive and Google Photos. Files uploaded before the change won’t count against the free allowance.

Currently, users of Google Photos can upload essentially an infinite number of high-quality pictures and videos, meaning unlimited storage of snapshots of up to 16 megapixels and videos up to 1920 x 1080 pixels in resolution. It’s a well-liked service and widely used: Google says it stores about 28 billion photos and videos each week. In an age when taking pictures and shooting videos has become second nature, automated cloud storage has become a smooth way to securely sync, store and share important milestones and, perhaps more often, many of life’s more mundane moments.

Google’s use of artificial intelligence has turned Google Photos into more than just a way to back up images. Computer vision adds metadata to photos, recognizing faces of people and pets as allowed by local privacy laws, and also groups photos based on subject matter and location, automatically creating photo albums of events. Now, the company promises to use the same deep learning technologies to develop new features in Photos, like suggesting blurry or duplicate pictures that could be deleted, so that people can more easily manage their storage.

The change in policy could end what we once called the “space race”. In order to create “stickiness” and build loyalty, tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo entered into a series of storage wars, leapfrogging each other with the amount of free cloud storage they offered.

We note that Google continues to offer unlimited high-quality image storage to users of its Pixel devices. This will help its phones stand out, providing them with a value-add out of the box. It charges $1.99 per month for 100GB of cloud storage, $2.99 for 200GB and $9.99 for 2 TB. Smartphone buyers can do the maths to see how much value to assign to the unlimited photo storage feature of the devices. In the early days of Pixel phones, Google allowed users to store unlimited original-quality photos in the cloud, but this didn’t change the sales trajectory for the devices. We see no reason to expect a sales boost for Pixel phones now.

There’s an upside to Google’s change in policy: it could turn into an opportunity for mobile operators that provide cloud storage as an additional service to their subscribers. Operators aren’t the first choice for storage services for most people, but as there’s already a billing relationship and a level of trust between subscribers and their service providers, wireless operators should jump on this change to tighten the relationship. Providing more services not only builds on average revenue per account, but also means customers are less likely to leave to rivals.

As we’re moving into a 5G era with fast connections and ever-improving imaging including 8K video resolution, now is a good time for operators to create packages of connectivity coupled with virtual storage.

Apple, Amazon and Dropbox could also turn out to benefit from Google’s policy change. These companies also give users a limited amount of free photo storage, with more available at subscription prices.

Giving credit where it’s due, 15GB of free cloud storage is still valuable to users around the globe. There was a time when e-mail services provided only a free megabyte or two and frequently reminded users to clean up their inboxes. Storage has grown thousands of times greater since then, but our storage needs have outpaced even that growth.