Reporter's Notebook

The Tech Innovation Chronicles
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Dispatches by James Fallows and others on the technological, cultural, business-model, and other determinants of modern innovation.
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Google Photos: Did Microsoft Get There First?

Panorama photo created by Microsoft’s Windows Live Photo Gallery. For details, read on.


In two earlier dispatches, here and here, I suggested that you give Google Photos a try if you hadn’t done so already. The most obvious payoff is providing an answer to the increasingly pressing question of how to handle increasing zillions of digital images. The less obvious advantage that has grown on me involves the big data/AI aspects of the system — the way it automatically groups photos of one scene into panorama views, or created animated GIFs, or creates albums with titles like “Iron Pigs Game in Allentown” by recognizing the landmarks and activities.

Yes, I know that on the other side of this same technology is the Panopticon Surveillance State. For now I’m talking about the applications that many users will find convenient — and, in particular, where they originated.

A reader who was a long-time official at Microsoft writes in to lament the fact that Google is now being either oohed and aahed at, or viewed with concern, for innovations that Microsoft had been chipping away at for years, especially with a product called Photosynth. I turn it over to the reader:

Once again I shake my head at the ways my ex-employer [Microsoft] would develop a great idea, and then not follow through, partly because of an inability to catch on with the cool crowd.

Photosynth could not just stitch many photos together, it could (given enough pictures) create a 3D model – about 10 years ago. It’s not as passive as Google Photos, as you have to point it at your picture collection, but it would have been relatively easy to make it munch on photos uploaded to OneDrive. The idea has basically just sat as a research project, with the last update 9 months ago, and now Google gets the credit for a great innovation. Apparently people are still using it (who knew?): go to photosynth.net for some recent 3D creations.

I’d never known of this project; I went to the site after getting his note; and he’s right! It looks very interesting. For instance, check this out. Back to the reader:

Young Bill Gates, innovator (Microsoft)

In the three previous installments you’ll find lower down in this Thread, I started with ‘Google’s powerful new Photos feature — and then heard from a Microsoft veteran about Microsoft’s earlier steps in this same field. Why, this reader asked, does Google (or Apple) end up with so much of the attention and coolness factor for developments that had been underway, longer, elsewhere in the techno-sphere? Readers weigh in with further hypotheses.

First, a reader in the tech business in California says the crucial concept is that of the “first widely noticed” innovation, rather than the first actual engineering or scientific breakthrough:

Variations on this theme have been playing out for years.  People thinking VMware came-up with virtualization, when it was IBM (or someone else) back in the 1960s.  People thinking that x86 servers were where fancy network interface card features (“stateless offloads”) were created when it was in the mini-computer vendors.  Call it “first widely noticed” advantage I suppose.

A reader who has worked at Google, but not on the Photos feature, writes:

Your ex-Microsoft correspondent reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon I used to have on my office door but unfortunately got lost in a move. In the cartoon, a beaver and a rabbit stand in front of a huge concrete dam, and the beaver tells the rabbit something like "It was my idea, you know?"

Great products are not just a pile of good ideas, they are a combination that works well together in practice to meet real user needs. PhotoSynth was indeed a great technology, but it was never incorporated into a compelling product. And your correspondent conveniently ignores the biggest innovation in Google Photos, its unparalleled ability to find relevant photos from descriptions of their content.

More assessments after the jump.