Sunday, March 20, 2011

Migrating images from SmugMug to Google's Picasa image store - Lessons in data lock and business models

Life is fractal. That is, sampled at scales small and large, it resembles itself. Sometimes I think this is profound, especially when looking at smoke rings of galaxies, but maybe I'm just having flashbacks.

So you don't need to spend 15 years in healthcare IT to understand why progress is slow. You only need experience migrating an address book between a PalmOS device to a Windows platform to OS X to Google Contacts (see also: synchronization is hell). That will tell you everything you need to know.

Similarly you don't need to be a corporate CEO to understand the strategic role of switching costs. It's very easy to switch between Subaru and Honda, not so easy to change checking accounts or move from Microsoft Office to Google Docs. Business strategies differ [2]; though this is never discussed in the sycophantic business book business. You only need to look at moving photo libraries from SmugMug to Picasa Web Albums [1] to learn this.

I am doing this now, and it's an interesting process. As expected, the switching costs are high. In most cases it's not worth the bother; if you have the original collections in iPhoto or a similar app it's best to abandon the old image libraries and start over. I'll explain first what you can move and what you can't, and what the implications are.

What you can move

  • SmugMug will bundle all images into a single archive, hosted on Amazon's S3 servers, and allow download. This is commendable, and better than many vendors offer.

What you can't export from SmugMug (what you lose)

  • Original file names.
  • All metadata other than what's embedded in EXIF files (so you do get the image acquisition dates).
  • Any titles, comments, notes.

This data lock story has interesting implications:

  1. If you have the original albums/libraries in iPhoto/Aperture then you usually don't want to bother migrating albums. (In my case I have them, but for a few albums it's marginally more convenient for me to download and upload again even without metadata.
  2. SmugMug is minimally useful for offsite image backup. Images without metadata are better than nothing, but you should not consider SmugMug to be any kind of alternative to image backup.
  3. If you ever edit annotations online, then you deepen your data lock. Nobody, not even Google, allows export of this kind of metadata (likes, commentary, etc.). The business advantage of  "social," and "Cloud services" comes from the high switching costs created by data lock.

Fortune 500 corporation or photo hobbyist, fractal life means lessons are easy to learn.

[1] Why am I moving? SmugMug decided years ago not to invest in OS X support. I gave them a few years, but then I reluctantly migrated my newer images to Picasa web albums, which had significantly better OS X (and later mobile) support. Now, in the interests of simplifying my online life, I am consolidating and giving up my old collections.

FWIW, here's why I would start with Picasa today, though a professional photographer would certainly prefer SmugMug. My decision has nothing to do with price, SmugMug is $30 a year and if I promoted SmugMug I'd probably pay nothing (referral fees). In fact, since Google charges differently for storage, they might be marginally more costly.

  1. Google's data freedom policy (data liberation team) is enough by itself to make my decision. Google supports full data sync, including metadata, to a cross platform app. No other vendor does this.
  2. SmugMug's lack of support for metadata export means it's not a supplemental backup store. Google's data freedom means it is.
  3. SmugMug has wisely focused on the professional photographer, but that means most of their services aren't useful for me.
  4. SmugMug is vastly better for printing images, photo merchandise etc. I print about 3 images a year.
  5. Picasa has far better OS X integration, though Apple is no help here.
  6. Google's image sharing interface is easier for my mother to use.
  7. I need to simplify my technological life. That means Google and Apple for me -- the right balance of coopetition. Between the two of them I get what I need.
  8. I am very annoyed that SmugMug auto-renews my account, and offers only immediate cancellation rather than a non-renewal option.

[2] Companies with captive customers face terrible temptations, companies with mobile customers have different temptations. Think of the relationship between divorce laws and the status of women.

Update 3/26/11: I downloaded a few albums, but it was pretty tedious to connect what I downloaded to the album names shows in SmugMug. I have the originals, so I focused on a few albums for a group where I probably didn't keep every original. The rest I vaporized. One less vendor to deal with.

See also:

No comments: