Google is cashing in on our memories

Fully Charged
Bloomberg

Hi all, Gerrit here. For years, people have been auto-uploading the hundreds of photos they take on their smartphones straight to Google's cloud. It's been an easy way to store memories and moments without clogging up your phone's limited storage, leading to more than 1 billion people using Google Photos to upload 28 billion images and videos every week. Most importantly, it's free—or at least, it was. 

This week, Google said it will start counting new uploads to Google Photos against each user's cap of 15 gigabytes of free storage with the company, starting next June. Once you hit that limit, you'll have to start paying $1.99 a month to up your storage space (unless you're using a Google Pixel phone). That doesn't sound like a lot of money, but it could generate as much as $3 billion a year in new revenue for Google parent Alphabet Inc. by 2023, estimates Bernstein analyst Mark Shmulik. 

On social media, consumers are pretty angry. "Plotting my move away from Google after this bait-and-switch move," one user said on Twitter, replying to a thread from David Lieb, product lead for Google Photos. After years of using the app to create a digital record of their lives, a lot of people feel they won't have a choice but to start paying.

The switch shouldn't be a surprise to those who've been watching Google's recent behavior closely. Last year, it made a similar change that pushed more Gmail users to pay for storing old emails. Personally, that's when I bit the bullet and started paying my $1.99 a month. Google argues that's a small price to pay for services hundreds of millions of people obviously find very helpful.

Still, it's not like the company has been running as a nonprofit until now. The company makes more than $30 billion a year, mostly by giving away web services and using the data to sell targeted advertising. The data from Google Photos, while not used for ads, has helped train Google's artificial intelligence software to better understand what's going on in images. Knowing the value the internet giant has pulled from its billions of users already, it's understandable that consumers now feel like the company is coming back for seconds.

Google argues charging for photo storage means it doesn't have to show targeted ads in the app. As concerns about privacy have grown in recent years, Google has cast about for ways to make money outside of its original business model of amassing groups of people with free services and using their data to show them advertising. But the move isn't just about privacy. Digital advertising was already slowing down as a business, and Google is under more pressure than ever to wring more money out of its products. Now that it has your credit card information for the $1.99 storage fee, don't be surprised if you start getting pitches for other Google services. 

In the end, Google's monthly fee is part of a larger trend that its Big Tech rivals have already been pushing for years. Amazon.com Inc.'s Prime shipping subscription has revolutionized the retail world, just like Netflix Inc.'s video subscription totally changed the entertainment industry. Apple Inc.'s push into monthly subscription services helped it eclipse $2 trillion in market value earlier this year.

For years, Google has been working its way into our lives in ever-deeper and more personal ways. Now, it's cashing in. Gerrit De Vynck

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