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How Google Photos joined the billion-user club

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24.07.2019

In a tech industry obsessed with scale, no aspiration is more iconic than building something that reaches a billion users. And nobody has achieved it more often than Google. Eight of its products have hit that enviable milestone: Android, Chrome, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps, the Google Play store, YouTube, and, of course, its namesake search engine.

Make that nine. The company is announcing that Google Photos has crossed the billion-user threshold. It crossed the line earlier this summer, a little over four years after its debut at the Google I/O conference in May 2015. Gmail took a dozen years to hit a billion users; Facebook and Instagram, about eight years apiece. Which makes Google Photos’ growth spurt not only impressive, but unusually rapid.

The app has certainly had some factors working in its favor. Google Photos ships preinstalled on Android phones, a powerful mechanism for getting it in front of vast quantities of new users. It’s also available on the web and as one of Google’s best apps for the iPhone and iPad. And it offers unlimited free storage—as long as you’re OK with having your photos and videos compressed using Google’s optimization algorithm—making it one of the web’s most tempting freebies.

Anil Sabharwal [Photo: courtesy of Google] Still, Google Photos’ success was hardly preordained. The app is a spinoff from Google , the social network otherwise known primarily for never having put a dent in Facebook’s hegemony. (Google shuttered the consumer version in April.) Once spun out, it arrived years after other tools for storing, organizing, and sharing photos; Google even had another one of its own, Picasa, which it acquired back in 2004 at the same time that Flickr was taking off. Even now, Photos often isn’t the default photo app on Android phones: Samsung’s Galaxy models, for instance, emphasize their own Gallery app, with Photos squirreled away in a “Google” folder.

Anil Sabharwal, the Google VP who led the creation of Google Photos, credits several factors for its success. In 2015, when it launched, the timing was finally right for Google to deploy a service that applied AI to billions of photos stored in the cloud. And the company built something that users could trust to take good care of their images. “We have this insane responsibility,” he says. “These are people’s most important memories.”

Perhaps more than any other Google product of recent years, Photos has benefited from the company getting everything right—which, for a service borne of Google , feels like a little miracle.

Anil Sabharwal grew up in Montreal, earned a degree in mathematics from the University of Waterloo, and eventually relocated to Sydney. He had spent most of his career at startups when Google tried to recruit him in the summer of 2008. At first, the notion of working at an enormous company did not speak to him: “I thought to myself, ‘This is probably not where I want to be,'” he says.

Google proved persistent, and Sabharwal ended up joining the company in January 2009. He worked on Google Apps—now known as G Suite—and helped build some of Google’s first truly native apps for iOS and Android. Four years into his Google tenure, he moved over to a project which the company considered at the time to be of utmost importance: the Google social network.

At first, Sabharwal was responsible for Hangouts, Google ’s video-calling feature. After six months, he moved over to the service’s photo-sharing capabilities. They had recently received an impressive AI-infused upgrade—here I am praising it at the time—but Sabharwal concluded that his first responsibility was answering an existential question: What, exactly, should Google Photos be?

That, he concluded, would require defining a three-pronged mission. “We needed to be solving a very clear problem for end users that currently is unsolved,” he explains. It had to be something that played to Google’s strengths. And the company would have to be as serious about the user experience as the underlying technology.

By any objective standard, Google ’s photo features were already slicker and more advanced than those........

© Fast Company