If you run in entrepreneurial circles, you know that there are a lot of people out there looking for the next killer app. It’s a cyclical thing, really. There is a groundswell of interest in a particular area, and eventually a couple of leaders emerge. Most of the competition gets swallowed or disappears, and then everyone moves on to the next big thing. In hindsight, the outcome always seems predictable. For example, let’s consider Internet businesses. The mid- to late-90’s were a great time for Internet-based trade. EBay and Amazon took that by storm. Then it was time for better search and a new way to advertise, and Google was made. After that came social networking, which Facebook seems to be dominating right now. Each trend seems to fit nicely into a progression, and we all envy the handful of people that were there at the right time.
The thing is, when you’re in the middle of the search for the next big thing, it just isn’t so clear what that will be. What’s next? The green movement is big right now. Biotech seems to be ever-present. And there are a lot of people going after video and Internet protocol television (IPTV). I’ve got my money on something else: photos.
Photos? What’s the big deal? Good question. Let me turn it around a bit. What’s the big deal about search or social networking? Online retailing? On the one hand, we find these things indispensable today. But none of them is all that thrilling. After all, search is incredibly utilitarian — we do it because we have to. Social networking and online retailing are simply things that we do in the physical world ported over to the web. Sure, each of these things has special benefits. But I believe that none of these businesses would have taken off if the companies that are now in control of them had not come up with new, interesting, and — most importantly — incredibly useful ways of making them work.
However, great ideas and great execution are not enough — there is also an element of timing. For example, online retailing only really picked up when Internet access moved out of universities and government laboratories and into people’s homes. Search-based advertising really gained traction only after consumers became comfortable evaluating products and making purchases online. And social networking took off because people became comfortable not only finding products and services online, but also developing new relationships and maintaining old ones there, too.
Timing is the reason I discount the IPTV segment. About a year ago, I actually thought that it might be time for IPTV, and that Apple was going to make it happen, just as they did for (legal) music downloads. But lately their package has become a little unraveled. First, there was the AppleTV. This was an interesting product, but it suffered a little neglect because Apple had bigger fish to fry (the iPhone and a new version of the Mac OS). But more than just neglect, the AppleTV highlights how far we have to go in terms of networking to get something that looks good on our HDTVs (the compressed standard definition video coming out of iTunes just isn’t appealing on anything bigger than a computer monitor). Even worse, no one seems to have a solution to the revenue issue for production studios. If anyone had enough clout to make this work, it might have been Apple. But because they are so big, the studios are hesitant to give them more power, and they have their own struggles trying to figure out how to make money (just look at the music studios post-Napster, or consider the beef that the screen writers’ guild has over residuals). There are just too many issues – technological, legal, social – for IPTV to work right now. Unfortunately, it will probably be at least a few years before these things get ironed out.
The nice thing about photos is that, from a timing standpoint, everything is in place. Half of the households in the US now take their pictures digitally. There are no copyright or ownership issues, because the content is all user-generated. And even at high resolutions, pictures are so much smaller than video files that we can zip them around on our existing broadband networks nearly instantaneously.
So the timing for photos is good, but aren’t there already a bunch of companies in this space? The answer is yes, but that’s really the point. There is no clear leader in digital photos sharing over the Internet. Photobucket has the largest market share (~44%), but their offering is mostly appealing because they offer free service and permalinks that have been widely used on social networking sites like MySpace. The other major players have diminishingly small market share, and no one seems to really offer anything compelling enough to attract the masses. Online photo sharing is a market looking for a leader. The technology is all there, but the winning product offering plus business model combination is still missing.
Undoubtedly there are other areas where enterprising people will develop game changing companies. And when they do, these developers of killer applications always have two things on their side: the right timing, and the insight to deliver just the right product or service in just the way that the rest of us want it.
According to a University of California Berkeley study, we snap about 75 billion pictures each year — and that’s only traditional film photography. Although we have become accustomed to hearing about figures in this range (hundreds of billions spent on the Iraq war, 6.5 billion people on the earth, the combined wealth of Bill Gates and friend Warren Buffett or the Walton family), 75 billion is a huge number. To put it in perspective, counting from 1 to 75 billion would take almost 800 years of non-stop effort (assuming a sustained counting rate of 3 numbers per second).
The real question is why — why do we bother to take this many pictures? Is our intention to frame them and show them off in our homes and workplaces? Do we take pictures to send to family and friends? Or do we use pictures to remind us of events, people, and places?
Of course all of these answers are correct to a greater or lesser degree, but I think there is a more fundamental reason: pictures are an insurance policy against forgetfulness. I began to consider this idea a bit in my last blog posting, and it has been gnawing at me ever since. In my experience, the vast majority of the pictures that we take do not go into frames or even albums – most remain with the envelope in which we received them from the print shop, or tucked into shoeboxes under a bed — at best, we insert them into photo albums that collect dust on a shelf. Rarely do we take out these pictures to review them — whether or not we have the intention of doing so.
In other words, pictures fill our desire to cling to our memories, to prevent ourselves from forgetting a time and place in our experience. In this way, pictures are self-promoting. When we see an old photograph, we are so shocked about how muddled the details have become in our minds that we yearn for a means to hold on and improve what we remember. But right there in front of us is the answer — a picture that retains every detail with complete integrity, which stimulates our recall just enough that we can see things close to how they really were. In a world where we are bombarded with so much information that we cannot possibly recall it all efficiently, pictures serve as on-demand mind probes that give us a degree of control over our memories.
As nice as this insurance policy against forgetfulness may be, the potential exists for our pictures to be something greater. The fundamental problem we have been dealing with for the past century or so is convenience. Pictures collect dust on shelves and in shoeboxes because it simply is not convenient to sort through them regularly, to rotate them through the frames on our walls and desks every few weeks, or to find time to choose the best ones to reprint and send to family and friends. Sure, if we had the time, we would enjoy going back through all those old memories — sharpening our recall a bit and correcting our perspective on history. But who has time to do it all?
The fact is, few of us have or will take the time to sit down and flip through a photo album on a regular basis. Rather, we have a handful of our favorite or most cherished pictures that we frame and display so that we can catch a quick glimpse and jog our memories briefly as we go about other tasks.
Now let’s imagine a world in which at least some of those frames that draw our glance from time to time actually have rolling content — that more or less each time we look, we see a different memory. Of course this is not science fiction — today’s digital picture frames can pull off this trick, and they are becoming more affordable by the week.
But why should we limit our use of pictures to our recall? One of the powerful things about pictures is that they can be a vehicle for sharing memories and experiences with others as much as reliving them ourselves. Our society reveres photographs that speak to our collective conscious through media such as National Geographic Magazine — enough that we almost seem to understand, for example, what it is to look at the earth from space, though almost none of us have ever had (or may ever have) that experience.
Of course if bringing out pictures for our own review is cumbersome, then sharing them with others is at least doubly so, with the result being that we do it all too infrequently. And there we rob each other of the opportunity to expand our understanding and experience. Once again, however, technology can make this process easier, enabling us to zap pictures across the world almost in less time than it takes for us to think of doing so.
Unfortunately, it seems that the right mix of technology to make these activities truly convenient may not be out there yet. For all of their promise, digital picture frames still seem limited in many ways (picture size and quality, software functionality, convenient access to new media, styling), especially when we consider the benefit we receive for the cost. And photo sharing sites have yet to sufficiently mediate the inconvenience of uploading pictures — or managing who sees what and when. But we have to expect that eventually someone will get these things right, and then we will be able to realize the latent potential that exists in our pictures today — the ability to enhance our memories and grow our understanding and appreciation of the world and each other. These goals seem worth the effort of taking another 75 billion pictures or so next year.
This week my oldest daughter is “star of the week” in her second grade class. Over the weekend, we helped her make a poster to bring to class to share a little about herself with her class. My wife sat down with her to come up with some interesting trivia (favorite food, favorite book, etc), while I went through our photo library to pull out some representative pictures of the last seven years.
Whenever I go back through old pictures, I am always struck by how different people look than I imagine them. Generally, I think I have a pretty good memory. But it seems that when we are around someone every day, it’s too easy to lose track of how they change. Sometimes it is unnerving, but in the end, I’m glad that pictures keep us honest.
Do you snap your pictures digitally? Increasingly, most of us do. It’s not too hard to find a decent point and shoot digital camera (name brand, 6-7 megapixel resolution, optical zoom) for $250 these days. A good, digital SLR body costs less than $1000, and many of our cell phones have built-in cameras, as well.
But what do you do with your pictures after you have taken them? Do you still go down to the photo store to get them printed? Do you print them at home on a photo-quality inkjet printer (the kind where an ink¬†refill almost costs more than the printer itself)? Surprisingly, even though we take a lot of digital photos, we still seem to have a strong desire to print them. According to a recent InfoTrends study, we printed well over 13 billion photos last year – not including those prints from traditional film negatives. At the same time, another InfoTrends study shows that we only shared 8 billion digital pictures.
Of course digital photo sharing must be growing faster, right? Catching up to traditional photo prints? Well, yes. But not at the rate you might expect. These same studies conclude that photo printing is growing at about 3% per year, while digital photo sharing is growing at a tepid 8% per year.
Where is the digital photo revolution? Why are we still shelling out $0.12, $0.15, or even $0.20 per print for photographs, when we have complete digital freedom to share, view, and archive them as we wish?
Perhaps the answer is that these activities — sharing, viewing, and archiving — are not yet as easy or satisfying as they need to be. For example, of the 8 billion pictures we shared digitally in 2006, the most prevalent method of transmission was email. But anyone who has ever waited in frustration for the download of a 10MB message (assuming your mail provider allows 10MB messages!) containing a dozen photos knows that email is not the best sharing medium.
Archiving is similarly problematic. Those of us who have experienced a hard disk crash or lost important computer files through other means know that keeping a single copy of our pictures on a desktop or laptop computer is not enough. But how many of us actually take time to back up or archive our digital photos? I even have friends that leave their pictures on their cell phones or cameras rather than deal with uploading them to a PC. For some of these, printing is a means of ensuring that at least one copy of each picture survives the next computer upgrade or accidental folder deletion.
Maybe — just maybe — if there were something that could improve our experience with digital pictures, something that could make it easier, more satisfying, and more secure to share, view, and archive our digital photos… Maybe then we would stop wasting all that money, time, and space on photo prints. Is it possible to bring about the rest of the revolution? Or will our transition to an all digital world take place slowly over the next generation or so? Is there any reason to take things slowly?
I have always found it hard to buy presents for my parents. After all, they are a couple of decades ahead of me, and they have pretty much everything they want, right?
In fact, my parents even have a hard time buying presents for each other. My mother struggled for years to find a unique and interesting Christmas present for my father. The problem was, whenever he saw something that he wanted, he went ahead and bought it for himself. Growing up, it seemed that the only one who ever got anything from Santa was Dad.
I remember one year when my mother thought she had found him the perfect gift. This was about the time that some of the Midwestern meat packing houses began offering premium steaks through mail order. My father loves a good steak, so my mother ordered him a case of prime New York strips. Amazingly, a case arrived the next day. “What service!” she thought. Then she looked at the packing list and realized that my father had ordered the same thing for himself about a week earlier.
Anyway, for a long time I found it tough to play in this game. Then a couple of years ago I realized that there is something that I have that they want and cannot get for themselves: pictures of their grandchildren. I decided I would do more than send them a few prints every now and then. Instead, I went out and splurged on a few digital picture frames. I bought the biggest ones I could afford, and sent them to my parents and grandparents, along with SD memory cards full of pictures from the past year. I told them that going forward I would send them additional memory cards to plug in. If they wanted, they could also use the files off the cards to order prints.
Last year was my first chance to send them fresh memory cards. Since the cards are only about the size of postage stamps, I decided I would tape each one to the inside of a greeting card and include a note of explanation. Wanting to send something more, I also designed a wall calendar using family pictures and had copies professionally printed for each of them.
I was not worried that my parents would have a problem with the memory card, but my grandparents are well into their eighties, and I wanted to make sure that they knew what to do. So, when I called my grandmother in Florida to wish her a Merry Christmas, I asked if she had figured out how to view the pictures.
“Oh yes, the pictures are lovely, thank you.”
“Great – I’m glad you figured out how to put the memory card in the picture frame,” I sighed, relieved.
“What’s a memory card?” she asked.
After a little more discussion, I realized that she was referring to the pictures in the printed calendar. She had thrown out the memory card – in spite of the note, she had not realized what it was, and did not know how to use it. I learned how hard it is to explain these things over the phone.
In fact, the whole idea has not turned out to be what I first anticipated. In spite of my budget-busting Christmas a couple of years ago, the 7″ screens on those digital picture frames just don’t do the photos justice. And preparing the SD memory cards has turned out to be quite time consuming — at least a couple of hours of going through all of last year’s photos to pick out the good ones, and then as much as 10 minutes or more to copy them to each 1 GB card — even over USB 2.0. Of course there was the experience with my grandmother in Florida. And then I learned from my grandfather in Virginia that he has not even bothered to open the box, because his eyesight is so poor that a 7″ picture does not mean anything to him.
There’s got to be a better way, right? Alas, after much study I found that there isn’t – at least not yet. But it is coming. Like a rolling stone. Like a flood…