Last week I had a chance to speak with Lars Perkins, once CEO of Picasa and now GM of Google’s Picasa unit. He was brimming with the news of his new product’s features, so let’s do a quick overview of what’s new, and then I’ll add a few thoughts as to what all this means. At least, what it seems to mean from where I stand.
First, Picasa is a major upgrade, the first since its release. It adds features in four areas:
– Editing. Version 2 has more and deeper editing features, including new filters, new lighting effects and masks, new color correction, etc.
– Backup. Picasa now lets you back up to CD or DVD, and create “gift CDs” for family and friends.
– Organization. You can now tag pictures with metadata and organize them in new ways.
– Integration with other sites. Picasa announced a deal that allows you to get prints of your Picasa photos through four major photo sites: Ofoto, Shutterfly, Snapfish, and Walmart.
Ok, for more on the features, there’s always PCWorld. What I’m interested in is the more joints after midnight stuff, what does Picasa *mean*, man?
It was odd – almost weird – to be having the discussion I did with Lars. It felt like I was back at MacWeek in the late 1980s and there I was, talking to a product manager at – well, a company like Microsoft about his new product – just one of scores the company was working on at given time. The whole thing struck me as very…traditional. Google was introducing a new software application, touting its new features…Wow, i thought to myself, this is how things are going to be with Google, going forward. Just one more product, one more set of features, one more cog in the machine. I don’t know why that struck such a dissonant note, but it seems to me it’s apt – the company is getting big, and every product can’t have the entire impact of the Google brand, so to speak.
But every product does carry that brand’s influence and potential. And to that end Picasa has many implications. First, let’s consider the business model. I asked Lars what it was, and he admitted “We don’t have one.” Since Google bought Picasa, the software is now free – it used to cost around $30 to download.
“That’s kind of took some getting used to,” Perkins added. “I had to unlearn some of my entrepreneurial instincts…For now, the focus is entirely on creating the best user experience. Like most things Google has done, we’ll figure out the business model down the road.”
OK, I can swing with that, but … really. What about selling prints and calendars, like Ofoto does? “I don’t think you’ll see Google offering end user products like printing or mugs,” Perkins replied.
Well, then, what about getting a piece of the referral action? If you are sending Picasa members to Walmart or Ofoto for printing services, don’t you at least get a piece of that action? “No.”
Huh. Why not? “We are interested in working with all partners, and when you try to cut these business development deals, there are always exceptions they want….”
It seems to me that if you’re Google, you can set the terms of a deal: make it the same for everyone, for example. But regardless of the “we’ll figure it out later” approach to business, which I at once admire and find rather disingenuous (will Google really send its Picasa customers to YahooPhoto?), there are any number of reasons why Picasa makes sense for Google.
1. Photos are data, and Google loves data. The more, the better. Sure, it’s not in the *web* index, but that can come later, as the definition of the PersonalWeb and the PublicWeb start to overlap.
2. Photos are personal, and photos are shared – both trends that allow for search to be better and more important to individuals and groups. This also binds a user to Google, over any other service.
3. Having a photo service will help a search company understand trends in non-textual search, and messy taxonomies of grassroots-driven tagging in particular.
4. And Picasa can be a business, in particular a referral-driven business. Once Google establishes Picasa as an application with its own momentum, I expect the company will reconsider its business model neutrality and start to charge commerce-related fees, much as it most likely will with Google Print.
As I think about Picasa, Google Desktop, Print, Keyhole, Blogger, and Google Groups come to mind, as does Google’s long held aversion to consumer marketing. And I’ve come to the conclusion that Google can no longer afford to avoid consumer marketing. In order for these services to really scale, to get to where they need to go, Google will have to start promoting them. It’s unavoidable – even if you do have the best product in the world, you need to tell people about it before they get locked into other options – Yahoo, for example, promotes Travel, Photo, and other services it owns. That’s what marketing is, after all. Sure, you probably don’t need to market Google search, nor do you need to market in traditional ways. But you sure do need to promote Picasa if you want it to be anything more than a footnote in its space. So I revise what I’ve said in the past about Google hiring an agency. I don’t think they’ll do it to launch a big “We’re Google and we rock” TV campaign, but it makes a whole lotta sense that they might hire an agency to promote the growing number of services and applications the company owns or will own in the future. I don’t know how many GDS downloads there have been, but given how many competitors there are in the desktop search space, I can only guess the number isn’t as high as Google would like, for example. I would not be surprised to see a campaign sometime later this year that reminds consumers that Google has more to offer than just a wicked fast search engine.
Oh, and I did ask Lars if we’d see a Mac version of Picasa, and he asked me if I had used iPhoto. Yup. Enough said.
PS – The Picasa site is very slow today – I imagine it’s getting hammered.