Whatever happened to digital photo albums?

Anthony and I were in Montreal over the weekend. We had a blast and, unsurprisingly, spent a lot of time eating. During one of those moments, we happened to be in the Old Montreal area at a restaurant called Le Robin Square enjoying a leisurely lunch. We had VERY leisurely lunches. While the service at all the restaurants we visited was great, we noticed there's a bit of a slower pace of life in Montreal — especially when it comes to dining — that is pretty much unheard of in New York. Not a bad thing but just different!

This poutine did not stand a chance!
This poutine did not stand a chance!

While we were there for lunch, we happened to notice the restaurant had a TV screen with some digital ambiance playing on it. This consisted of a stock video of a vineyard and you could see the leaves gently swaying in the wind. This got me thinking about the idea of the "digital picture frame."

Remember when that was a thing?

For a hot second, it was something that everyone thought they needed…and then they didn't. The Wall Street Journal wrote about this last year but I think there's more to it than what they surmised as far as why they never went anywhere. At the time these products came out, they were severely underpowered. Also, perhaps the larger problem, at the time these really became big, there were very few cloud storage solutions for photo that were widespread. Today, everyone's stuff is stored in the cloud so, as long as the picture frame can connect to wifi, in theory, you can access your photos with very limited friction.

That said, given this new climate, you'd think these things would be more popular! Unfortunately, that's still not the case but I'd have to imagine that major players who have invested in the home-automation sector (like Google, Apple and maybe Amazon?) could have a major opportunity in looking into how to make this work. Given that Google, Apple and Amazon are storing a lot of photos, it would make sense for them to turn those banks of images into something that could make them money.

And, speaking of making money, I think Apple is uniquely suited to make this work given they have a great knack for making us fall in love with consumer products that we didn't know we needed. I can't live without my iPhone today but at one point in time it was something I held off on buying. The same is true of the iPad I'm writing this piece from. In short, with one well-timed ad, Apple can make us want to buy just about anything.

That said, making the digital picture frame work would require a renewed focus on the form factor and the user experience for configuring it. As you are probably aware, most of these digital picture frames resemble a small television monitor. In order to hang this on my wall or put it on my desk, I would want it to look less like another device and more like something analog. In this case, it needs to have more of that organic feel.

And, as much as the form factor is important, you can't discount the importance that the user experience holds in making something like this a success. I recall when I had one of these way back when and it required me throwing a bunch of files onto a filesystem. Not exactly the easiest user experience to figure out which files I wanted. Today, the process of loading from physical media could be replaced entirely by the cloud — or better yet, a companion app on your phone through which you can configure the device that's hanging on your wall as long as you are on the same wifi network.

Additionally, I think there are endless opportunities when it comes to curation. I've seen first hand that folks have seemingly end-less libraries of photos on their phones. When you have that many photos, how do you find the ones that matter? I would propose looking into some sort of machine learning whereby your images can get tagged or grouped thematically based on what the image consists of. Maybe you only want to see the pictures that have your kids present in them — or maybe you want to only pull up photos that don't contain any people in them. Or only black and white photos. Given so many folks don't print photos anymore, it's surprising that this hasn't come up as new product.

That said, if Yahoo had the money and was willing to partner with a hardware company, I would even say they could make this product category stand out. Yahoo is interestingly positioned, at least for now, because they own Flickr.com. Flickr has a wonderful community of photographers' work including many archives and images that are Creative Commons licensed. My hunch is that Google may be looking into these kinds of devices given their acquisition of Nest was more for the technology going into the devices (and how they could jump start their own connected home efforts).

Though, at this point, it may be that everyone is focused on fixing the terrible UI of the interior of the car (I will write about that another time!) and no longer focused on adding more internet connected devices for your home. Looking forward to seeing what Google (or should I say Alphabet?) and Apple have up their sleeves.