Google will restrict free usage of a very popular service.
The company will phase out unlimited storage on Google Photos, it announced Wednesday. The service, launched in 2015, allows users to easily upload, back up and sort through the thousands of images we fill our smartphones with.
Any images users upload beyond June 1, 2021 will count towards the 15 GB limit imposed on Google accounts that already includes files from other services such as Gmail and Google Drive.
After hitting that limit, Google Photos users will have to pay for extra space through the company's Google One cloud service, which starts at $1.99 a month for 100 GB of storage.
But the flood of users that flocked to Google Photos in the five years since it launched — more than a billion of them — may have reason to feel betrayed after counting on a feature that Google at least hinted would be around forever.
"Google Photos gives you a single, private place to keep a lifetime of memories, and access them from any device," Anil Sabharwal, Google Photos' then-head, said in a blog post when the service launched in 2015. "And when we say a lifetime of memories, we really mean it."
Google Photos hooked users with the offer of unlimited high quality photo uploads and slick automatic backups from your smartphone. Once your photos are uploaded Google's AI capabilities make it much easier to search through your old photos, including grouping them by event, by date or even identifying individual people and places.
"Google Photos: Photos. Until Google doesn't want them anymore," wrote one user on a YouTube promo touting Google Photos as being "For Life."
Several Twitter users also accused the company of a "bait and switch," with many vowing to stop using Google Photos.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.
There are some details about the upcoming change worth noting.
Previously, Google allowed users to upload high-quality images — slightly compressed from the original but barely noticeable to the casual eye — for free. Uploading original quality images already counted towards the 15 GB storage limit. But after June 1 next year, any images users put on Google Photos will eat into that limit.
There are some measures in place that will help ease the transition. Google says anything uploaded to Google Photos between now and next June will not count towards the 15 GB cap, and the company estimates more than 80% of users will have enough space to store around three more years' worth of images and videos even after June next year.
Google will also let you track your remaining space in years rather than GB, based on a calculation of how often you take and back up images. Google Photos also uses artificial intelligence to warn you when you may be running out of space and suggest photos that might be easy to get rid of, such as random screenshots, blurry images and anything it's already backed up to the cloud.
Google says users of its Pixel smartphones will enjoy the free unlimited storage even after the June 2021 deadline.
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To some, Google's move to suddenly make more users start paying for storage might seem like the perfect example of a tech company that's too big and powerful.
After all, the tech giant is already facing a significant antitrust lawsuit over its dominance in online search, and Its move to juice Google Photos for even more revenue could give some of the company's many critics more fodder to justify a crackdown.
But unlike its dominance in online search, Google has several high-profile competitors when it comes to photo and cloud storage services.
These include Apple's iCloud, which offers 5 GB of free storage and $0.99 a month for 50 GB of storage thereafter, Microsoft's OneDrive, which gives users 100 GB of storage for $1.99 a month, and Flickr, which offers up to 1,000 photos and videos for free and charges $6.99 a month for unlimited storage.
So galling as it might seem to some, the change is unlikely to exacerbate scrutiny of its market power.
"I think it's a stretch to call this an antitrust problem," said Avery Gardiner, general counsel and senior fellow for competition, data and power at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "And giving people more than six months notice of a future price increase isn't the sort of conduct we usually characterize as an abuse of power."
Gardiner also points out that Google doesn't impede users from switching to other services or place restrictions on compatibility between different services.
But for users who have years of images and videos on Google Photos — the company says more than 4 trillion images are currently stored on the platform, with 28 billion being added every week — switching away may be difficult. Some good things just weren't meant to last.