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Free as in anti-competitive

There's big questions in what it means for Google to offer free cloud photo storage and then take it away when the free service spoiled the market for paid competitors for so long.

Seamus Byrne
Seamus Byrne
4 min read
Free as in anti-competitive

This week Google announced it would end its unlimited free photo storage service. There’s obvious reasons for doing so, and Google argued the case in its blog post announcing the decision.

It’s annoying and will force a big shift in our relationship with photo storage and backups of all kinds. Many will maybe panic at the idea that the future of where they put their photos is uncertain. If you have to pay, should you reconsider where you store them? What is in there now will be given the ‘doesn’t count’ treatment so you don’t have to move them… but do you really want a split library of the history of your life?

So many cultural issues attached to reorganising our digital archives in this context. But the biggest question should probably look closely at what Google did to the photo storage industry when it offered free photo storage in the first place.

If Woolworths started offering free milk there would be uproar over anti-competitive behaviour, because the local corner store can’t afford to wear a loss like that. It has caused its own problems that the big supermarkets have offered very cheap milk – but free? The consumer watchdog would step in.

Yet, like in so many other contexts, the digital world always accepts the idea that offering genuinely valuable utility services for free is OK for the big guys to do. If some other company wanted to try to innovate in that space, well they’d better be able to convince people why it’s worth paying for the service – because it’s OK that other companies offer that same base function for free.

I used to use Smugmug and Flickr, and those companies had their key features and options that they tried to make their attractive proposition for ‘Pro’ customers to pay a monthly fee. But with Google, we all had the account, and it was so easy to just say “Yes” and watch it all vacuumed into one place without a major fuss.

Today I pay Apple for my photo storage alongside still having a second home for backups at Google Photos. But I’m sure many Android users have made this their home.

If five years ago someone had said “free storage until we decide we’ve killed enough competition and we’ve copied enough of their features that you will find it easiest to just pay us instead of try to move it all somewhere else” would as many people have said yes? Maybe. We’ll never know.

Control the storage, control the customer in so many ways.


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Founder and Head of Content at Byteside.

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