Do You Know Where Your Photos Are? (Really? Are You Sure?)

Tech Today
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Let’s play a game: it’s called Where Are Your Photos?

In today’s hyperconnected world, you’d think the answer would be “Right here, in my pocket,” but I did an informal survey recently, and it told a different story. Most folks said their digital photos — the data people say is their most valuable — were spread someplace across Facebook, Flickr, their personal mobile devices, and home computers, with the rest gathering dust in shoe boxes, family albums, and other analogue mediums under beds, in closets, and who knows where else. Which gives some insight into the most common answer to my highly unscientific study: “Um, actually, I’m not really sure.”

You can probably see where this is going. Everybody’s taking pictures, but not so many are minding where they go next.

Of course Apple and Google have horses in this race, doubling down on their cloud services and making Apple- and Google Photos competing cloud media managers, each with photo management apps tied closely to mobile device camera rolls. Because these apps are designed by the same people who brought you the mobile OSs on which they run, they get special privileges to shuttle pictures to and from each company’s cloud. Even while the apps aren’t in use. This set-it-and-forget-it solution works for lots of people. Easy. Done. Or is it?

Google vice-president Vint Cerf — of all people — isn’t so sure. Cerf is concerned that we’re not taking the long-term storage of our most valuable data seriously.

“When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history.”
– Vint Cerf, Vice President at Google

Web 2.0 may not be the hot young topic it once was, but it still hasn’t been around long enough for us to figure out questions around long-term, and legacy data storage. Cerf points out that older, outdated formats and storage systems will be replaced as web-based platforms evolve. The knock-on effect here is clear: the data stored on legacy systems will either be useless, or deleted along with the platforms. Fast forward now to the cloudy world in which we live, and you don’t need a degree in Tea Leaf Reading to be able to predict the future of cloud storage.

Who’s Losing?

Just ask Apple’s Aperture users, who saw support for their beloved photo manager end with the release of Apple Photos in April, 2015. Flickr recently changed its offering, causing an uproar by excluding the popular bulk upload tool from free accounts. Not to be outdone, Dropbox dropped support for its Carousel apps on March 31, 2016.  Just last week, Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage reduced its free storage limit from 15 to 5GB, and eliminated the 15GB camera roll bonus. The more denial-oriented among need only look at Bitcasa, Picasa, iPhoto, and other web-based darlings who’ve up and evaporated from this space in the last twelve or so months to see there’s a trend afoot. Sure, web services and apps are always changing, but with this much volatility, trusting all your data to an outside service is risky at best.

Playing with New Rules

So back to our game. We should change its name. Because if winning it means getting on top of our own data, and being secure in accessing our own life’s story, it should be called Where Are Your Original Files?

This is a way harder game, because most people don’t realize that social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter aren’t storing full-resolution, original photos on their services. Instead, they make what are called down-res versions, reducing the actual image size and fidelity to save space on their platforms. Even Google Photos maxes out at 16MP unless you’re willing to pay them $100 every month for something more substantial. That’s not such a big deal today, because these down-res sizes work for most screen viewing. But remember: nothing stands still in this world —  the proliferation of retina displays, for instance, shows up these smaller files for what they really are, and that’s a problem for a growing number of users.

What’s next? The tea leaves aren’t telling, but a safe bet would be for larger media files, faster networks, smarter devices, and higher-resolution displays. So being sure you have protected access to your original files, with every last perfect pixel intact, is the best way to ensure the maximum lifespan of our most precious memories.

“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future.”
– Vint Cerf, Vice President at Google

One Way To Win

There is a solution that allows for maximum flexibility in terms of storage and file size: Mylio. This Bellevue, Washington startup has been focused on protecting and sharing the digital tapestries that make up our life stories since 2013. The Mylio App is a complete Digital Asset Management (DAM) system, plus a lot more. It uses a technology called peer-to-peer in which your devices communicate directly with each other, allowing your photo library to be replicated on all your devices without relying on a cloud service if you don’t want to. Mylio’s main idea is preservation with privacy and control: you choose where you want to keep your original files, with multiple copies of the originals you care the most about, and access to your complete library on all your devices.

Mylio is available for free, and it can function as a kind of disaster-preparedness drill, letting you know how many copies of your original files you have, and where they are in case of emergency. So if — poof! — even Mylio were to disappear tomorrow, you’d be secure in knowing your digital life story is safe,  sound, and replicated. Even in a game where the goal posts shift continuously, you can know you’re a winner.