Google wants in on the photo book business. But why?

Google Photo Books

Google wants in on the photo book business. This was revealed last week at the Google I/O conference where the Google Photos team unleashed three announcements – Suggested Sharing, Shared Libraries, Photo Books – along with the statement there are 500 million regular users, uploading 1.2 billion photos and videos a day. Second to Facebook, Google Photos is probably the largest photo site – in only two years.

Suggested Sharing uses Google’s machine-learning technology to select photos from your library to share and even recommend people to share them with. Shared Libraries takes this concept a step further, allowing the user to automatically send and receive photos from one other person. That sounds like a good solution for couples who want to easily combine their joint photo activities.

But it was the Photo Book announcement that drew the headlines. (Print industry insiders are already wondering which white-label lab is doing the printing.) Just as reporters speculated about the demise of Shutterfly or Snapfish with the launch of Amazon Prints photo printing service, now comes another round of predictions.

Consumer press reporters, like USA Today’s Jefferson Graham, lauded the product’s simplicity and ease of use – as well as price point: “The book looks terrific, with excellent color reproduction. It doesn’t look as snazzy as a big Shutterfly book, or a professionally produced $200 photo album, but I wasn’t expecting more. It looks better than $10 should get me, and it’s great to pass around a physical book instead of asking everyone to look down at the smartphone.”

This is yet another example of a high-tech company trying to make mainstream a high-touch product like a photo book.

This is yet another example of a high-tech company trying to make mainstream a high-touch product like a photo book. Despite multiple easy photo-book concepts and apps – Mixbook/Mosaic, Tapsbook, ReSnap, Picaboo, GrooveBook, Chatbooks, and countless others – the code hasn’t been cracked. There’s a lot of approaches out there, and certainly any large digital player who promotes output must be welcomed. On the other hand, there’s considerable over-capacity in the color photo-printing space – as evidenced by Shutterfly’s greater reliance on commercial printing for growth – so the question is, will Google Photos grow the pie or steal share from existing players? Maybe a little of both, but it should be a concern to anyone already in the consumer space.

The move does raise some questions. Clearly, the Google Photos team thinks there’s value in providing a book printing themselves, rather than just enabling it through an API. Given the current state of photo book adoption, it does raise the question if Google Photos will expand into other high-margin services, like photo canvas and metal prints. By comparison, Amazon Prints offers a more full-featured photo shopping experience, from cards to gifts and beyond.

On the other hand, photo book printing is likely a hobby for a Google Photos, and will not likely receive the attention and care needed to grow a dedicated customer photo base. Having consumers’ online photo library is one thing, getting them to do something with those prints is yet another. If Google Photos is successful in activating consumer photo printing habits, the entire industry will benefit.

What other digital-to-analog conversion services could Google embrace? Me, I’m betting on an online service to transfer tracks from your Google Music library to LP. Or eight-track tape.