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Google Photos’s promise of unlimited free storage is going away

Starting in June of next year, new Google Photos uploads will count toward a storage limit, even at reduced resolution.

Google Photos’s promise of unlimited free storage is going away
[Source Photos: Unsplash]
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When Google Photos launched in 2015 with the promise of free, unlimited photo storage, the pitch was that you’d never have again to worry about photo management. Because of that promise, Google Photos quickly became one of the company’s most popular services, hitting one billion users last year.

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But now, Google has a different message for those users who flocked to the service: Time to pay up.

Starting on June 1, 2021, Google will begin counting new photo and video uploads toward users’ storage limits, even for the compressed “high-quality” images that Google stores for free today. Existing photos and videos won’t count toward the storage limit, but for anyone who keeps using the service, the core promise of unlimited free storage is effectively going away. After using up Google’s 15 GB of free storage, you’ll have to pay for a Google One storage plan starting at $2 per month for 100GB. (One exception: Users of all current and previous Google Pixel phones still get unlimited uploads.)

“For the people who never want to pay, we are committed to offering a free product within those 15 GB starting in June,” says Google Photos VP Shimrit Ben-Yair. “But for those who want to go beyond that, we have our [Google] One storage tiers.”

Altering the deal

Ben-Yair says the policy change arose from the way the service has grown. In 2017, people were uploading 1.2 billion photos and videos per day (or roughly 8.4 billion uploads per week). Now, Google says it handles 28 billion new photos and videos every week, and is already hosting about four trillion photos total. While Ben-Yair won’t comment on whether Google Photos loses money on the cost of all that storage, she says the current growth makes the service harder to sustain as a free service.

“I think that people are uploading much more content than initially,” she says. “When we launched Google five years ago, the upload velocity that we had then, versus today’s mobile world, is a lot different.”

On a related note, Google’s also taking steps to purge some of the data it already has. A new policy will allow Google to delete users’ data from any service where they’re inactive for at least two years, and to delete any data that exceeds users’ storage limits after two years.

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It’s worth noting that Google doesn’t monetize Photos in the ways you might expect from the company. The product is ad-free, and Google has pledged not to mine users’ photo data for targeted advertising purposes. Until now, Google has only made money on Photos by counting non-compressed full-resolution photos toward users’ storage limits and by offering photo printing services.

Ben-Yair says Google looked at several business models for Photos, but ultimately settled on pushing more paid storage as part of its Google One subscription plan. That service also includes other perks such as live tech support, and Google has recently hinted at adding new photo editing tools that require a One subscription.

“The reason why we like that business is that it’s very well aligned with one pillar that the product offers,” Ben-Yair says. “If you want to use the product to store more than a certain amount, you pay for storage.”

Echoes of Gmail storage limits

The move by Google to cut off free photo uploads is reminiscent of when the company stopped increasing its free storage allotments for Gmail. As with Google Photos, the original pitch for Gmail was that you wouldn’t have to worry about deleting messages. Instead, you could just archive old emails and find them later by searching.

But in 2013, Google altered the deal, creating a single 15 GB storage pool that covered all of its services, including Gmail and Google Drive. Its free storage limit hasn’t changed since then, and in recent years Gmail users have been feeling the squeeze to become paid users.

Within the first year of cutting off free storage, Google estimates that 7% of users will hit their limit.

Ben-Yair stresses that Google isn’t abandoning free users. The company has launched a web page that shows an estimate of when people will run out of free storage based on their current usage patterns, and Google estimates that 80% of its users won’t hit their storage limits for another three years. That takes into account all the storage they might be using on other services such as Gmail.

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In June, Google will also launch new photo management tools. It’ll flag photos with dark or blurry backgrounds, for instance, and let users delete them in bulk. Users will then be able to see how much time as a free user that they’ve effectively put back on the clock.

But even within the first year of cutting off free storage, Google estimates that 7% of users will hit their limit. If all of those users were to start paying for storage at $2 per month, and we assume a base of at least one billion active Google Photos users, the company could be looking at nearly $1.7 billion in new annual revenue.

While some users might be able to avoid those limits for a while, in they end they’ll just be delaying the inevitable. And one way or another, they’ll definitely be worrying about photo management once again.