Facebook has announced their 10 billionth photo uploaded further reinforcing something I have been saying for a while — Facebook *is* primarily a photo sharing site. It may have been a feature that they added later, but it has been the key contributor to their massive growth.
As one of the folks who created the first and once largest photo sharing enterprise (Webshots), I have just a handful of thoughts for anyone interested!
1) Back in 1999, it was evident that photo storage and photo sharing would ultimately be splintered among many providers (often with different use cases) and driven to commodity costs. This was born out with Kodak Ofoto (Shutterfly, et. al.) handling print based services; Webshots providing a hybrid of professional and user generated albuming; Flickr arriving to serve as a photo blogging platform as well as a Web 2.0 pioneer in distributed photo embedding; Photobucket as a digital repository; Slide as widget powered self-expression.
2) Photos are everywhere and are a pillar of the information provided online. Platforms like Blogger, WordPress.com, and eBay traffic in enormous amounts of photos. Heck, email is undoubtedly still the primary method of sharing.
3) Driving big revenue and big margins is very difficult. Most of the photo finishing services that have put up revenue north of 100M have razor thin margins and one might argue that their profit is driven by the price charged for shipping. Webshots achieved a measure of success with a freemium product as well as advertising but it was never able to break past the 20-25M (albeit with high margins). SmugMug has chosen a pay only route and has built a solid business but again no one has turned photo sharing into a search-like business.
In fact, many have failed. Yahoo abandoned its photos property (in favor of Flickr) at a time when it was the #1 per comscore. MSN abandoned open web photos 5 years ago. Google’s picassa service is an elegant and growing property but will never be a contributor to the Google business. Google image search has 2 issues: first, a legality question over serving ads into search results because of copyright; second, relevancy of any ads inserted (image search is different from regular search!).
4) Lessons for Facebook. Celebrate now! It won’t take long in internet time before another service has more photos. For those predicting the future of Facebook the business: beware. You are what you are and no matter how many times Mark Zuckerberg talks about the social graph, Facebook is primarily a place to share photos. As such it is inexorably tied to the experiences and lessons of the services that have come before and they are not harbingers of big and sustainable revenue. In fact, in many ways, Facebook has an inferior product because they do not save the original photo! Their highest resolution image is 604 pixels wide and that arbitrary number may come back to haunt them.
Thoughts and comments welcome.