The ‘Great’ Pixel Original Quality Photo Storage Controversy of 2019

Was that too dramatic? Did you know of the change in storage options? Let’s go through this in detail, where Google failed, and where the marketing and execution could be done wayyyy better.

History:

  1. Google Photos launched a few years back, and it was superbly well received. They provided excellent features, super reliable backup, super fast and smooth mobile app and desktop apps (they don’t get enough credit for their AMAZING mobile app).
  2. But best of all, Google Photos offered photo and video backups from your phone at two tiers. First is the Original Quality (OQ) tier, where the photos and videos are backed up as-is, no change in file, quality, size, resolution etc., except for enhancements and edits. Second is the High Quality (HQ) tier, which is a space-saving option with some magic trickery that only Google knows. It shaves off huge amounts of storage size, downsizes photos to 16 Megapixel if higher, downsizes videos to 1080p if higher, and uses a different compression algorithm to make photos way smaller while retaining amazing amounts of quality in the media files. Almost all phones were less than 16 MP at that time, it wasn’t a big deal, and 16 MP is a lot. Everyone was also amazed at how much quality is preserved, indistinguishable for most use cases and displays. It really is very good.
  3. Original Quality storage uses up your Google account storage space, which is 15 Gigabytes by default, shared with your Gmail and Google Drive etc. You can purchase more storage using the old Google Drive storage options or the current Google One options.
  4. High Quality storage is given free of charge (so far), making it a great deal. I configure this for any family member that I know who can’t handle their own phones/media. It’s really good enough for almost everyone but serious photographers and tech geeks.
  5. All was peaceful until Google launched Pixel phones. The first Pixel phone (differentiating name Original Pixel or Pixel 1), had a great promotion of Free Original Quality backup, in perpetuity, as long as the media was uploaded from the phone itself. It perhaps celebrated the amazing phone camera and AI, and a brilliant marketing strategy. After all, it was the first Google branded Pixel phone. People loved this. Well not that everyone appreciated it. But it was awesome. Pixel phones were associated with free OQ storage, great cameras. Of course Pixel phone pricings were also up there with premium iPhones, so that helped justify the cost to us.
  6. For Pixel 2, perhaps Google toned it down, they still offered OQ storage, but only limited to 3 years from launch. Fair enough, you probably won’t use the phone for more than 3 years, and you would switch to a new Pixel phone so you don’t really lose anything too much. Still awesome. Phone is still expensive, but people bought it.
  7. Pixel 3 – same as Pixel 2, 3 years of free storage. It’s becoming a trend, a classic Pixel thing, but it’s fair, no complaints.
  8. Pixel 3a – Google launched a budget level Pixel phone. Much cheaper, simpler hardware specs, but downgraded to High Quality photo storage only. Still very justified as the phone is way cheaper and targeted at those who are less picky. A little annoying that Google kept on marketing it as Free photo storage on the ads, despite this service being given the same as any other free google account and Android phone out there, it was a tad misleading and tsk tsk.
  9. Pixel 4 – woah Google quietly dropped Original Quality storage, kept up the 3a style marketing of ‘free photo storage’, and dared to pass off High Quality storage on Pixel 4 buyers like nothing happened. That was very very very poor marketing strategy and totally picked up by discerning users upon seeing launch marketing materials and reading the fine print. This is a huge deviation from previous imprinted user mindset and associations of full priced Pixel phones with great cameras and photo storage, where you can just take photos and videos and enjoy the camera without worrying about storage (and local device storage is less generous than other cheaper Android flagship phones, and no SD card). Pixel 4 price remained high, they carried on the great-camera branding.

Possible reasons for this:

  1. Free Original Quality storage is possibly pricey in costs, and with the hopefully increasing number of Pixel phones, including old phones, this might be a cost issue. (But Google is so rich, but Google has so much storage, but Google loves to have our photos)
  2. Pixel phone buyers do not rate this feature highly in market surveys or are aware of the exact differences and benefits. Their user research might show this to be true in the general population or less savvy users who want to buy Pixel phones.
  3. HQ storage is really good, and good enough. Most of us only might possibly print like 0.001% of our photos, uploading them online always gets compressed and resized anyway. Who even has a 16MP display screen.
  4. OQ media is only required for people who want to take super high quality for local editing, and can transfer this out to their PC or Mac for processing on Photoshop/Lightroom. And photographers don’t often use a Pixel phone as a main work camera, nor videographers. The manual controls, battery life, form factor just don’t replace a full camera. Even youtube vloggers have a nice Sony RX camera now.
  5. Do you even have a choice? If you want a highly secure, well-maintained Android phone guaranteed with work with Google services, top line camera and apps, fancy face recognition, fancy Google Assistant, there’s really no other phone you can choose? much like how Apple users only have effectively one phone in different sizes.

So should Google really drop free OQ storage and what they can do better:

  1. if OQ storage is not for general use, then change the marketing, branding, positioning. Pixel buyers are the most common Google service users, they have Google One accounts etc. If their photos are good enough at HQ, then make the phone shoot and save in HQ compression format directly.
  2. Improve on-device Pixel camera storage format, algorithms etc. If HEIC format is so good and small, use it. Pixel phones have limited storage size and no expandable SD slot. How do you expect it to last a full extended vacation trip?
  3. Improve Google Photos settings and options to split photos and video backup settings
  4. Improve Google Photos settings to allow users to selectively save certain photos in Original Quality
  5. Improve Google Photos to show which media is backed up in OQ or HQ, and allow users to selectively compress individual files down to HQ instead of a blanket compression setting. Right now you can only convert your entire library from OQ to HQ in a click, no choosing.
  6. Improve Google One features even further in terms of premium tier photo services, editing, photo management, folder management, machine learning. Yes Google One has great storage options, but I just accumulated 800 photos in 3 weeks of my child, so I really think the free Pixel OQ storage is a really important differentiator to me.

At the end of the day, we ought to acknowledge that Google offers a fantastic service with free High Quality unlimited backup storage, compared to other phone providers. They do deserve for users to pay some amount of subscription, but they need to do a serious rebranding of their service, bump up the marketing, show users what they get for their money, and really differentiate paying users from free users in service tiers.

If subscribing to a Pixel service gives me longer updates, AI/ML camera updates, additional photo management, additional photo storage, I think many people would gladly throw money at it. It’s world leading and very impressive, but not well marketed.

Mobile phone cameras are undoubtedly very good. Pixel cameras are very very good, and many many times more convenient, faster, and better than my Olympus camera. However I don’t want to juggle a mess of mixed Google Photos storage formats and quality tiers in a basic interface. It’s going to be really messy if I have a new phone that backs up at HQ, or if I set it to auto backup at OQ and then manually delete off the unnecessarily files. Google is making this way too troublesome. Storage tier wise, I estimate that if I went OQ on everything, I will need to go to the 20 TB storage tier within 1 phone cycle or 2-3 years. That’s $99 per month!

The ‘Great’ Pixel Original Quality Photo Storage Controversy of 2019

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